Cultivating change

October 21, 2015 by Sasha Langesfeld and Michael Ding

This past summer, we, Michael Ding ’18 and Sasha Langesfeld ’17, conducted campus food production research under the guidance of Associate Director of the Center for Environmental Studies Sarah Gardner. You might be wondering, “Why not just call it a farm?” The reason is that the end goal we sought departs from the image that most people conjure up when they hear campus farm: students getting together to shovel compost, raise pigs and drive tractors next to our academic buildings. No, instead, what we researched was the costs and logistics of hiring an independent professional to produce food on land that the College owns but does not currently use.

The overall goal of this project is to increase the amount of local food in dining halls while increasing our food security, decreasing our carbon footprint and making sure that the operation could be financially independent from the College. In addition, we wanted to ensure that the new food production would only supplement, not replace or change, the College’s current purchasing from local farmers. We think that this project will appeal most to a young farmer who doesn’t have the resources to buy his or her own land but would like to manage his or her own farm and work closely with Dining Services to meet its needs. The farmer would enter into a contract with the College to provide certain crops, and the College would promise to buy a set amount of the produce. The farmer could also use the land to grow food to sell to other independent buyers.

The campus food production operation research this summer was a continuation to the research that a past environmental planning class conducted about the possibility of a campus farm, the Wire Bridge Farm property in Hopkins Forest. Since that land was recently deemed to be for research purposes only, this summer, our goal was to look at other pieces of unused College land and evaluate them for the potential to become a food production operation. To begin this project, Gardner spoke with Vice President of Finance and Administration Fred Puddester to determine what land was available. Out of all of the land owned by the College, only four parcels were identified: a one to two acre piece behind Tyler House, two acres at the old piggery field, about six acres at a property on Cluett Drive and about eight acres on Potter Road. From these choices, we narrowed it down to just the Potter and Cluett properties.

We conducted soil tests of both plots and spoke with Dining Services to determine what crops they would have the greatest use for. Then we talked to local farmers to choose crops that would grow best in the area and require minimal manual labor. Using data from Dining Services, we came up with the most profitable crops and what it would take to get the farm started. We also considered chickens and pigs to complete our vision for a diversified farm.

A campus food production operation would provide a wide array of benefits for the College, its surrounding community and the global community. On the campus level, a local food production system would increase student awareness of sustainability issues and promote land stewardship, provide new educational opportunities for environmental classes and maintain the College’s long-term financial stability. On the local community level, a farm would increase the percentage of local food purchases, thus lessening the pressure on faraway areas experiencing drought or deforestation. On the global level, a farm would reduce the College’s contribution to climate change by reducing its carbon emissions and, if sustainable practices were implemented, reducing the College’s overall environmental footprint.

Our research showed that there are many ways a campus food production operation could be run. The final decisions would have to be made by the farmer in conjunction with the College to assess how much each party would be willing to put into the project to see it come to fruition. We found that, at each step of the founding process, the farm could go in many directions. Although at first we thought we wanted to be able to grow one or two crops in large quantities to produce enough to provide for Dining Services’ everyday uses, we have found that it might be more profitable to make a diversified farm. This would help the farmer have a more stable income that could withstand price drops, crop failures, weather related incidents, etc. better than a monoculture. A diversified farm would also have more educational value for students for future integration with classes.

This project is still in an early phase of development and more research needs to be done; however, the response to our end-of-summer presentation gives us hope that students, faculty, staff and administration may work together to make this vision a reality.

Sasha Langesfeld ’17 is a geoscience major from Miami, Fla. She lives in Bryant. Michael Ding ’18 is from Nashville, Tenn. He lives in Tyler House.

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