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It’s All in the Dirt: Plans for campus farm continue to grow

Photo by Anna Corson.

Before graduating, the class of 2010 bequeathed their class gift of approximately $6,000 toward a seedling of an idea: efforts of starting a farm on Mills’ campus.

The farm would be six times as large as the community garden and emphasize produce production and community rather than learning, as the garden does. However, according to Christina McWhorter, who runs both the botanical garden and the community garden on campus, the farm will still provide education for its volunteers and workers. Mills may even create courses pertaining to sustainability and agriculture that would require students to grow food for the farm. Perhaps, as McWhorter envisions, there will be a farmer’s market stall on campus or even in the Laurel District’s Saturday Market — some way for people to purchase goods grown on the farm.

Despite support from people on campus, starting a farm is hard work. Proving that it will be financially self-sufficient, an important aspect of the farm proposal, hinges on a long list of disastrous scenarios, most of which would be prompted by weather.

“You’re working with nature; you’re not in control,” McWhorter said. “There could be so many things that could occur.  There are just a lot of variables.”

In early March, McWhorter and Linda Zitzner, Assistant Vice President of Facilities, took soil samples from the potential site, a sloped field at the end of a long parking lot just to the right of the front gate, to be scrutinized by an off-campus lab in Benecia called Delta Labs. The soil samples are being tested for three categories — trace metals, volatile organic components and semi-volatile organic components — that will help determine  how viable the soils growing capabilities is and, therefore, what can be grown in it — if anything. The results will dictate whether or not the potential site will become the actual site.

Bon Appétit is one of the supporters of the farm that has helped plans move as far as they have. Willing to pay market rates for whatever surplus the botanical and community gardens grow, Bon Appétit has served as a driving force for the campus garden by buying produce already grown on campus.

“That was a very easy link to make,” McWhorter said of the garden’s relationship with Bon Appétit. “They really have green strategies and are doing this all over the country with different universities. It’s not like we’re reinventing anything; we’re just trying to make it possible to have that model here on a slightly larger scale.”

Jason Landau, manager of Bon Appétit at Mills, supports the idea of a farm on campus.

“I can certainly speak for the Bon Appétit team when I say that we would absolutely love to get our produce from the Mills Farm,” Landau said. “It would be incredible for everyone: students, staff, faculty, Mills and Bon Appétit.”

According to McWhorter, Bon Appétit already benefits from Mills produce from the community garden.

“It really doesn’t get any fresher,” McWhorter said. “I literally harvest and then walk it up the hill and deliver it to them.”

McWhorter hopes that students and staff will see the benefits of growing the food that they eat.

“When I eat food that I’ve grown,” McWhorter mused, “there’s a quality to eating it that’s totally different than anything else.  I just feel more linked and connected to the food, and I also know that plant’s history from the seed. It’s a pretty close link. It’s very empowering.”

McWhorter believes that the farm can provide an easier starting point for gardening novices.

“It’s just a good entry point for a lot of people; people are interested in food,” McWhorter said. “They start out with growing carrots and tomatoes — not rare orchids and natives and bizarre other things.”

For the people who have already shown interest, including the class of 2010, McWhorter is grateful.

“I could not have envisioned that happening,” McWhorter said of the class gift, “but it really felt great because it was a testament to student’s supporting something that makes sense.”

No one is quite sure when the farm will manifest, but McWhorter believes it will take some time.

“Things like this don’t move super fast. It’s a big project. It takes a lot of people working together,” McWhorter said. “One way or another, we will increase food production on campus. I hope, in doing so, we increase the community’s participation and their understanding of what it feels like to grow, harvest and eat their own food.”

Zitzner said that much depends on the results of the soil samples, which the school will have in about a week.

“If all goes well, we should be ready to plant by midsummer — maybe,” Zitzner said.

If the soil isn’t viable, Zitzner said the College may have to excavate and bring in “clean” soil. Regardless, the project will need “sweat equity.”

“We’re going to need blood, sweat, tears and money,” Zitzner said.