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 Fall 2011

Down on the Farm

Antioch College’s Global Seminars sit at the center of its new general education curriculum. Focused on the areas of food, water, energy, health, and public policy, the Global Seminars provide students with an interdisciplinary approach to examining critical issues. They are, for all intents and purposes, the academic medium through which Antioch College chooses to address what has, in the last decade, grown into a social justice issue of our time: sustainability. And the campus farm provides a living lab.

Antioch College Farm photo by Diane Chiddister of Yellow Springs News

Clockwise, from top left: Kat Christen, David Kammler, Anne Simonson, Nick Boutis, Lewis Trelawny-Cassity, Brooke Bryan, and Louise Smith. Photo by Diane Chiddister, courtesy of the Yellow Springs News.

“The particular challenge for this generation of Antiochians will be to discover new and better ways of living that treat the health of the planet as our core priority,” Antioch College President Mark Roosevelt said. “The signs are all around us that we have passed a tipping point in terms of human and environmental health.”

To bring these issues into closer focus, the College is working to integrate sustainability across the curriculum, said Nick Boutis, director of the Glen Helen Nature Preserve and coordinator of College sustainability initiatives. Where appropriate, sustainability becomes a topic of conversation in the classroom; but more importantly, College leaders are seeking ways to make sustainability a part of how life is lived on the campus in Yellow Springs. The first step in that direction is the development of the Antioch College Farm.

“We’re establishing what we’re doing from the get-go, and we have an opportunity to design our initiatives right into the fabric of the institution,” Boutis said.

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  • Volunteers work the land on the new Antioch College Farm. (photo: Dennie Eagleson ‘71)
  • Volunteers work with Kat Christen to ready the Antioch Farm. (photo: Dennie Eagleson ‘71)
  • College staff and village volunteers develop the Antioch College farm. (photo: Dennie Eagleson ’71)
  • Farmer Kat Christen explores securing this mobile chicken coop from predators. (photo: Dennie Eagleson)

Preparing the Site

Situated on the thirty-five acre former golf course on the southeast side of the campus, the farm is to be both a working laboratory and a way to provide experiential learning in organic farming and sustainable food practices.

The College hired Kat Christen, a local organic farmer, to get the farm up and running. Christen runs Smaller Footprint Farms with her husband, Doug, a graduate of the naturalist training program at the Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center. She earned a bachelor’s degree in life science education from Ohio University and was previously an urban naturalist for the Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton. The Christens founded Smaller Footprint Farms six years ago.

Working with volunteers from the campus and village communities, Christen has built twenty raised beds for planting. Produce includes beets, spinach, Asian greens, lettuces, and other cold season crops. There will also be herbs, such as cilantro and dill. All purchased seeds are organic when available, untreated, and non-genetically modified organisms, Christen said. The plan is to plant twenty beds this fall and to build fifteen to twenty more for spring planting. Christen is also working on planting a food forest, a food production and land management system that is based on using trees, bushes, and shrubs that have yields directly useful to humans.

“We’re planting persimmons, berries, apple trees, plus a really unique variety of things, such as paw-paws,” she said. “They’re a native plant of Ohio, and they taste like banana-mango custard.”

“There’s this idea that being green means you’re not a humanist. But sustainability is actually treating people equally. Environmental justice ties in very closely with social justice.”

Lewis Trelawny-Cassity, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

The campus greenhouse, which sits adjacent to the Science Building, has been repaired, which will allow for an expanded growing season, Boutis said.

Antioch College would, of course, not be the only small liberal arts college with a farm. Hampshire, Sterling, Warren Wilson, Evergreen, and Oberlin all have farms. Antioch College’s new faculty members were scheduled to take a college farm tour in late August. Among other locations, Boutis had scheduled a trip to Oberlin’s George Jones Farm and Nature Preserve, a 70-acre farmstead operated by the New Agrarian Center as a cooperative farm incubator and educational center. The farm combines production areas for vegetables, fruit, composting, and free-range livestock with efforts to restore natural habitat.

Antioch College proposes to add chickens and other animals to its farm operation. In late summer, ten chickens were brought onto campus in a mobile coop. Most were killed by a neighbor’s dogs soon after arrival on campus. Christen and other members of the farm committee are devising a plan to better protect animals when they are reintroduced to campus. This fall, a community that includes students will share the responsibility of caring for the animals and harvesting crops.

“It won’t be long before those chickens are generating eggs,” Boutis said. “Even in at times of year when we aren’t picking anything out of the garden, we’ll still be able to reap some bounty from the birds.”

Boutis said Christen is primarily responsible for prepping the canvas, so to speak. “One month after we started the farm enterprise, faculty joined our community and we are able to bring their interests to bear on the work we’re doing,” he said. “Similarly, once students start, we’re going to want to factor in their views. If we have students with certain dietary interests or limitations, we’ll be able to factor that into the crop design.”

It’s all part of the process of building a farm that is designed to be a center of learning for students, Boutis said. The farm will provide students an opportunity to find out what sustainable agriculture means and what they can do to improve current practices.

“If we’re doing this wisely, we’re thinking about how sustainability becomes an integrated context for learning about the campus—how we build in opportunities with the Office of Community Life, how we design coursework, how we design the system of campus governance,” Boutis said.

A New Frontier

Students may be able to work full time on the farm during the spring co-op, said Susan Eklund-Leen, dean and professor of cooperative education. Additionally, all students must work ten hours a week during study terms, so a part-time job on the campus farm is also a possibility for those who are interested.

A tremendous number of students in the new class have already done some work in sustainability. Their biographies include stints farming in developing countries, working in agriculture and biodiversity, village construction and environmental conservation in Central America, and organic farming in South America.

Anya Gandy, for example, says organic farming is the lynchpin to finding ways to remedy pressing global concerns, such as climate change. “We need as many people as possible to grow food,” she said. “We have to make more of a transition to organic, local farms to combat climate change and other [issues].”

Gandy and her classmates had an opportunity to engage on these issues at their orientation in September. The 10-day program included a community-wide discussion of Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest, an examination of the worldwide movement for social and environmental change.

“We’re talking a lot and working through a lot here,” philosophy professor Lewis Trelawny-Cassity said. Trelawny-Cassity is a member of the farm committee and was on the committee that selected Blessed Unrest as a common read for incoming students.

“There’s this idea that being green means you’re not a humanist. But sustainability is actually treating people equally. Environmental justice ties in very closely with social justice,” Trelawny-Cassity said.

Over the summer, Trelawny-Cassity brought his two young sons to campus to assist with the development of the farm. Tilling soil, clearing weeds, and planting greens is a practical exercise that he appreciated, he said. “I put in ten hours a day putting together bibliographies. Going out, just making sure the chickens have water, is very practical and hands-on,” he said. “It’s a welcome, invigorating break.”

Antioch College will never be an agricultural school, he adds. “But getting students to do work with their hands empowers them. We want to radiate optimism, and give people a way to make things better. The farm is a small way to do that.”

Christian Feuerstein ’94 is a writer, editor, and production manager living in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Gariot P. Louima is the chief communications officer at Antioch College.