Farming food, reaping knowledge
- Published: August 11, 2011
Preparing the ground for incoming students took on new meaning last week at Antioch College, as the revived college launched the Antioch College Farm, its first major sustainability project. Located steps from the classroom, the farm is envisioned by organizers as a significant aspect of campus life, where students not only produce food and compost scraps, but also incorporate their learning about environmental sustainability into classes ranging from chemistry to philosophy.
On Friday the college announced that Glen Helen Director Nick Boutis will also serve as the coordinator of the college’s sustainability projects, including the farm. In an interview Friday, Boutis said that the college’s unique position as newly regenerated after having been closed actually offers an advantage over other schools that have incorporated farms into their operation.
“Most colleges can’t integrate the farm into their campus from the get-go, but we can,” said Boutis. “If we do this wisely, we can figure out how the farm interacts with the facilities, the curriculum and the community. I think it’s incredibly exciting and one of the things that Antioch intends to do moving forward.”
The college took a significant step toward getting the farm up and running with the recent hiring of local organic farmer Kat Christen, who will help to design and implement the first phase of the farm project. As well as running Smaller Footprint Farms with her husband, Christen brings to the job five years experience with environmental education. She worked as an urban naturalist for the Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton, and also has a bachelors in life science education and a minor in plant biology from Ohio University.
“It’s an exciting project, an opportunity to make something great happen for the college and the community,” Christen said in an interview this week.
Because “growing food is one of the most basic ways we connect with the earth,” growing healthy food with sustainable practices is one of the most meaningful ways that people learn the value of environmental sustainability, she believes.
Sustainability was identified as a major focus of the revived college in President Mark Roosevelt’s June State of the College address. In an interview this week, Roosevelt said that focus has evolved from a variety of factors, including the interest of the college board, and specifically board member David Goodman, and Roosevelt’s own experience in the college’s admissions process last spring, as he learned about prospective students.
“I was affected hugely by seeing how the students are already driven by this issue, and how they see its connection to social justice,” he said.
Identifying himself as still learning about the topic, Roosevelt said he’s become increasingly passionate about sustainability concerns in the six months since he began his presidency.
“I’ve had my own education. It’s been dramatic,” Roosevelt said.
Other colleges, such as Middlebury and Sewanee, offer a sustainability focus, and college leaders are still determining what Antioch’s specific niche will be, Roosevelt said, stating that because Antioch is located in the Midwest, that niche will likely be food production.
Along with Boutis and Christen, a new farm committee composed of faculty and staff has begun meeting regularly to identify ways to incorporate the farm into campus operations.
“Students should be able to pull a vegetable out of the ground, cook with it, take the compost back to the garden and then study the results in chemistry class,” Boutis said of some of the ways the college will integrate the farm experience into campus life.
The farm committee is composed of assistant professors David Kammler (chemistry) and Lewis Trelawny-Cassity (philosophy); Dean of Community Life Louise Smith; facilities representative Ronnie Hampton; adminstrative representative Joyce Morrisey; and Boutis, Brooke Bryan and Ann Simonson of Glen Helen.
Located on the 35-acre former “golf course” on campus, the farm will be a “working laboratory that provides the opportunity for active participation in learning, experimenting and applying best management practices in organic and ecological agriculture methods,” according to a college press release. Lessons learned in the fields will likely become fodder for the college’s new Global Seminars that offer students interdisciplinary approaches to the study of issues around food, water, governance, health and energy.
While the first quarter Global Seminar will focus on water, food will likely be emphasized in winter or spring, according to Trelawny-Cassity. Questions regarding how citizens should spend their time, how food should be produced and distributed are “inherently philosophical” and go back to Plato, he said.
“The farm is an interesting experiment in community and local food production. These are issues of political economy,” he said.
Along with its ability to incorporate the farm into many segments of campus life, Antioch has other advantages compared to some colleges regarding integration of the farm as an educational experience, according to Boutis. First, it will be located on campus, rather than several miles away. And while some schools struggle with aligning their students’ calendar years with a farm’s growing season, Antioch’s first class of students will have a spring campus-based co-op, when farm needs are high, and will also be on campus during their first summer.
“We have some options other schools don’t have regarding the growing season,” Boutis said.
In the first weeks of her job designing the new farm project, Christen is focusing on tilling areas in the former golf course where fall crops — including swiss chard, onions, carrots and beets — will be planted, and planting those areas with the cover crops of buckwheat and red clover that will enrich the soil when they break down.
She’s also building no-till beds in the former Antioch College garden area that, because it’s been untended for several years, is very overgrown. That area will be part of a “food forest” of food-producing trees and shrubs, including wild plums, pecans and pawpaws, Christen said.
Other steps getting the farm up and running include the building of “chicken tractors” for containing the chickens that will be used for eggs, meat and manure, along with fences built from the locust trees that have grown in the area.
The farm will likely include animals other than chickens eventually, and the second species may well be bees, Boutis said. Toward that end, Gunter Hauk of Virginia, a leading biodynamic farmer and beekeeper, will visit campus the end of August for two days of residency with faculty and staff. His visit will also include the screening of a film shown at the Little Art on Aug. 30 and a public talk on Aug. 31.