Campus Crops: Intentionality Leads to Opportunities

Campus Crops: Intentionality Leads to Opportunities

By Jennifer Cisney

When one door closes another one opens … this inspirational metaphor, often attributed to Alexander Graham Bell and Miguel de Cervantes, is a fitting analogy to the latest developments at Wilson’s Fulton Farm.

Known on campus as the Farm, this seven-acre environmental educational facility and working produce farm is finding a new path, post COVID-19 pandemic. Challenges with staffing, volunteer recruitment, getting produce to market, and the voracious appetite of deer have all caused Farm leadership to rethink how the facility runs and meets the needs of the College. Christine (Chris) Mayer ‘07, assistant professor of Integrated Sciences and director of the Fulton Center for Sustainability Studies, has decided to regroup, and ultimately, scale back the traditional produce production of the Farm, making room for new outreach opportunities.

Christine (Chris) Mayer ‘07, assistant professor of Integrated Sciences

Mayer shares that scaling back has allowed her to be more intentional and thoughtful in the design and operation of the Farm. For example, she, along with College Farmer Tim Gacquin, are now exploring the use of more permaculture applications.

Permaculture is the concept of using land, resources, people, and the environment in a manner that produces little to no waste. “Think of it as a self-sufficient and sustainable way to grow the food we eat,” said Mayer. Drawing inspiration from nature and based on crop diversity, resiliency, productivity, and sustainability, this approach fits well with the mission and focus of the Fulton Center for Sustainability Studies.

College Farmer, Tim Gacquin

“In a permaculture system, we attempt to mimic natural systems. For instance, we can stack, or layer, functions like in a forest system with a forb layer (non-woody plants), a shrub layer, and a tree layer. One application we have currently is our herb spiral. It presents different sun and shade exposures and different types of soil drainage ability, according to plant preferences.”

Mayer is bringing her intentionality to the classroom as well. This spring, she is teaching an Agroecology class for the first time since 2017. Agroecology is an approach to sustainable farming like permaculture but with broader concepts. It incorporates the discussion of scientific principles and social movements with the aim to create a more just and promising future for people and the planet. Drawing from the core tenants of ecology, sociology, economics, and agricultural science, Agroecology offers a roadmap for developing sustainable and equitable food systems.

Students participating in the class hail primarily from Wilson’s Environmental Science and Animal Studies degree programs. As part of their studies, they are reading “Saying No to a Farm Free Future” by Chris Smaje. In the book, the author delves into the role of keystone species, meaning those that have a significant impact on the environment and essentially hold the natural ecosystem together.

“It’s empowering when you teach someone to grow their own food,” said Mayer. “You don’t have to have 100 acres and grow 8 million ears of corn. It’s about learning to provide for yourself, grow real food, and understand the care and nurturing that goes with it. That’s how we as humans can become better at being a keystone species.”

Mayer says the Farm can also be a valuable resource for other programs of study at Wilson. Assistant Professor of Biology Sherri Buerdsell and her conservation biology class use the property to conduct plant surveys. And Bonnie Rock-McCutheon, assistant professor of History and Ancient World Studies, has integrated the Farm’s interpretative trail into her archaeology class by studying the former site of Fulling Mill.

Outside of the classroom, student engagement in the Farm significantly dropped because of the COVID-19 pandemic limitations. However, students are starting to get involved again. According to Mayer, overall student interest in the Farm is increasing, from poultry to beekeeping. Last year, students mobilized and formed a Future Farmers of America Club and a Fulton Farm Club. Mayer finds this encouraging. While it is commendable that the Farm helps to train farmers in sustainable practices, what’s happening on a smaller scale, like these student interest groups and senior capstone projects, is crucial, she said.

“Imagine students graduating not just with degrees but with the power to become sustainability changemakers, even in their own backyards. Imagine the Farm, not just as a patch of land, but as the keystone of campus, nourishing minds and nurturing the Earth,” she said.

Mayer’s work is making an impression. She recently received an email from a student whom she taught 10 years ago at Wilson. In the email, the student wrote … Hey, remember me? I was in your class, and I just want you to know, we bought our first house. I have a three-year old now, and we just planted a tomato plant in our backyard. Thank you!

Mayer smiles and remarks “That’s one of the finest things I have (ever) received (about) this work.”

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