As part of the Environmental Planning class last semester, our independent project group (Sara Clark ’15, Lucy Bergwall ’15, David Kruger ’14 and Eirann Cohen ’15) researched the feasibility of a Williams College farm. The study focused on the possibilities for a specific plot of land in Hopkins Memorial Forest: 73 acres of open field currently under conventional cultivation for silage corn and hay. We did not begin the project with the intention of using the land for a college farm; rather, we evaluated different agricultural land-use practices in order to determine a plan that would increase the site’s benefits to the College. After weighing the costs and benefits of options, such as biomass production or the status quo, we decided that a college farm would be the best use of the land. The research began as an academic endeavor, yet over the course of the evaluation, we began to view the theoretical exercise as one that could become a reality.
Notably, we found that creating a college farm is economically feasible. Evaluating uses for the land based in order to meet four key objectives – reduce the College’s carbon footprint, promote new educational and research opportunities, promote stewardship of the land and achieve long-term financial sustainability – we determined an ideal farm operational arrangement. An organic farm managed by an employed or contracted experienced farmer and gradually expanding over the course of 10 years would be the best means to meet these criteria. Created in this model, such a system would not even impose great costs on the College. A farm could be independently financed and managed, yet leased under a contract that would ensure academic access, priority produce choice and a strong College-farm relationship.
Thus our empirical study found that Williams could develop a farm on land in Hopkins Memorial Forest, but there are many projects that the administration might initiate to enhance the College’s offerings. So, why a farm? Why should our liberal arts college become involved with an agricultural operation?
First, a farm would provide additional educational opportunities for students. The operation’s academic use would not be for agricultural technical training, but rather, as a space accessible to professors for relevant coursework. From English to biology, departments could utilize the farm as a resource for experiential education and inspiration, a means to demonstrate tangible lessons from sustainable agriculture that would otherwise remain on a PowerPoint presentation. Additionally, among our peer institutions, Williams is one of the only schools without a farm. Even Amherst beat us to it, starting a farm in 2010.
However, most of these schools have farms that that are financial burdens, subsidizing operations that could not otherwise survive financially. Yet a Williams farm would not follow this trend. On the contrary, the College has the opportunity to create a laudable, economically viable operation. With careful planning, a farm model with a contracted, rather than salaried, farmer could substantially limit or even avoid the College’s financial involvement. Such a carefully designed structure would not only serve as a model of environmental and economic sustainability but also give the College a competitive admissions edge for prospective students.
Next, a College farm would provide a large amount of sustainable food for the dining halls to increase Williams’ sustainable food offerings while reducing our carbon footprint. By the most recent evaluation, 13.1 percent of food at Williams qualifies as “real” based on the metrics of the Real Food Challenge. A Williams farm producing specifically for the dining halls would allow the College to increase this amount substantially without replacing items already purchased locally. With the needs of Dining Services the top priority, the farm could supply large quantities of products currently missing from the local market, items such as eggs, meat or specific vegetables, without competing with existing vendors. This increased amount of local food traveling less than five miles from farm to plate would greatly reduce the carbon emissions and cost required to transport products to our dining halls.
Finally, the farm would satisfy student demand for increased amounts of local food in the dining halls. As part of our study, we conducted a survey to assess student opinion of campus food and interest in a farming operation. Not only did a large majority of students indicate that the College should start a farming operation to produce for the dining halls, but a majority of respondents replied that Williams does not serve enough local food on campus. This result, combined with the increased interest in sustainable food at Williams shown though the presence of Real Food Williams on campus, indicates a strong student desire for shifts in the origins of dining hall meals.
Some may believe that starting a college farm would be contrary to our mission as a liberal arts institution. Yet if constructed in our proposed model of an independently managed operation linked to the College through education and purchasing agreements, the farm’s purpose would not be technical training. Instead, the farm would provide a complementary academic space for students, lead us to the forefront of collegiate dining sustainability and provide an economically sustainable agricultural model so as to not impose great costs on the College. With these benefits and the bovine Ephelia as our beloved mascot, a farm would be a valuable and more than fitting addition to the Williams College campus.
Sara Clark ’15 is a political science major from Devon, Penn. She is studying abroad in Siena. Eirann Cohen ’15 is a French and environmental policy double major from Ann Arbor, Mich. She is studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence.