The Learning Farm

Mixing agriculture and education.
Mixing agriculture and education. // Annelisa Leinbach

It’s a drizzly Sunday afternoon, but school’s still in session at the West Campus Urban Farm.

While leading an impromptu tour of the quarter-acre territory, student farm manager Corinne Almquist NUR ’16 is the schoolmarm taking attendance: mint, cilantro, Chinese cabbage, a shy sprawling of marigolds atop a lattice to her left, a whole lot of garlic, all present. She runs her fingers through the spiky chives like she’s ruffling the fur of a wet pooch — the class pet, maybe, left out in the rain. There’s slumping bok choy at the rear, and straight-backed dinosaur kale, riddled with acne-like pustules, at the front, the class know-it-all with its hand-like leaves raised high. All this classroom really needs is a bell.

This is a strange sort of school, though, because everyone is in bed. The majority of the crops call home a wooden, rectangular enclosure, a “bed,” raised about six inches off the ground, filled with soil and seed. These raised beds, 72 in total, along with over 50 barrel planters, allow the farm to exist in what was formerly an infertile gravel lot — it’s called an “urban farm,” Almquist shouts over the wind, because it was created from scratch in an area not conducive to planting things. If you wanted to grow bok choy in the middle of Times Square, this is how you would do it.

Almquist, with hair so rhubarb-red it just might sprout if you planted a strand, knows the West Campus Urban Farm from fence to fence. The farm is small, one fourth the size of the Yale Farm on Edwards St., but getting to know it is still a feat — not so much for Almquist, though, who before starting at the Yale School of Nursing won a fellowship to harvest food in Vermont. When manager Justin Freiberg founded the farm in Spring 2013, in partnership with the West Campus administration and Yale Sustainable Food Project, Almquist returned to her roots and became a volunteer. Now she’s the student farm manager, helping volunteers when she’s not planting herself. Over the season, she’s found good company in the folks on West Campus who like to plant things during their spare time.

But, for a growing community of researchers, professors and graduate students, farm time is class time, not recess.

Freiberg calls the West Campus Urban Farm a “layered learning environment.” It’s not just a communal space, but also an extension of the West Campus classroom, where students and researchers can engage firsthand with the concepts they’re studying and collaborate on new projects. The parallel on Yale’s main campus is the Yale Farm, a plot off Prospect St. where Yale undergrads tend soil of their own.

This Farm and the Yale Farm are not in opposition, Freiberg says, but complementary, each providing space for a different type of learning. At West Campus this means the Farm doubles as a laboratory. Although it has yet to reach its first birthday, a lot of research unique to the space has been done — and a lot of learning is to come.

“Working at the farm has the potential to get people to think very differently about what they’re studying,” Freiberg says. “Of course it’s gratifying to get your hands in the dirt. But it’s also a chance to bring research ideas into a totally different context.”

* * *

One of the projects Freiberg is most excited about is only just starting to sprout. Cecilia Jevitt, a longtime gardener and professor of nursing and midwifery at the Yale School of Nursing (YSN), has started to hold her classes among the crops.

Jevitt is new to Yale, and she came to YSN at the right time: This October, the School moved from a dark, landlocked building at the edge of campus to a newly renovated space at 400 West Campus Dr. She found Freiberg and the Farm, and a light bulb went off.

The ancient practice of midwifery has come a long way since its shout-out in the Old Testament. Today, most students, like those at the Yale School of Nursing, train to be nurse-midwives: nurses who specialize in providing family-centered primary health care to women, particularly mothers and mothers-to-be.

Much of nursing and midwifery requires an understanding of nutrition. The YSN, according to Jevitt, has the only midwifery program in the country with a farm that’s just a few blocks away. Prior to Yale, Jevitt was teaching the subject straight out of a textbook, she says, but she has turned the Farm into a learning adjunct where her students can make connections between the crops before them and the hard facts they learn in lecture.

“Imagine 16 students sitting around on picnic tables out in the fresh farm air learning, instead of sitting in class looking at a Power Point,” she says. “Getting to hold and see what they grow — it’s a more complete education than most midwives receive.”

On a recent October afternoon at the Farm, she taught a lesson on fiber and glycemic indices, using real vegetables. Americans in general, she feels, have become disconnected from food production and growth cycles. In her classes on nutritional science, held at the Farm, she plans to demonstrate for her students what she learned growing up. Watching her father tend his own vegetables in the heart of Chicago she realized that when you learn about food, you learn about life.

She won’t just use the Farm for growing  food, but herbs, too. As part of the “core competency” requirements, each prospective nurse receives some training in complementary therapies — the use of certain non-drug-based therapies, like massages, as an adjunct to standard medications. Herbs are a notable example of complementary therapies, and Jevitt will have her students grow lavender, garlic and other crops at the Farm that have been effective in relieving birthing pain and stress.

Although they might give what they grow to patients, that’s not the idea. For Jevitt, the Farm’s real value lies in the process of growing itself. She says the nurses at Yale who use the Farm to grow their own food are gaining an enriched understanding of what they’re studying in school. That understanding, she adds, will make for better nurses who can more efficiently impart what they have learned to their patients.

“Just holding and seeing [vegetables] can facilitate the learning process,” she says. “[Now] they’ll look at an orange carrot and say ‘beta carotene.’ They can pull it out of the ground, wrench it off and eat it. Few people have that opportunity.”

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Jevitt and her students will be in good scholarly company soon. Interdisciplinary learning and collaboration are pervasive throughout the academic environments on West Campus, and scientists from numerous fields of study — the Center for Molecular Discovery, the Nanobiology Institute, and the Center for Genome Analysis, to name a few – are eager to see how they can connect their projects to the Farm.

Freiberg says that undergraduates, too, have discovered the space. In the coming weeks, the members of the Yale Bee Space will bring beehives to the Farm to expand their studies of hive technology and bee behavior.

He hopes that he’ll soon be able to pilot a nutrition science program for grade school students, who will take trips to the farm to study the flora firsthand. With the help of West Campus administrators, he says, the farm has become “a huge collaboration” between the students, faculty and staff on the campus who are using it as a laboratory — a collaboration he hopes will ripen in the seasons ahead.

In the meantime, volunteers are doing much of the learning. On volunteer days, which Freiberg announces via his weekly email newsletter, the farm manager, often Corinne, guides the volunteers through a number of different tasks, teaching them the techniques necessary to maintain an urban farm of this size. Because large machines like those on the Yale Farm don’t fit in the Farm’s small space, the volunteers use hand-scale tools, which are easier to hold and use. When they come, they can jump right in, Freiberg says. No matter someone’s level of expertise with farming, they can feel like they’ve contributed.

“As more and more people grow up away from farms, farms are increasingly out of their comfort zones,” Freiberg says. “Here, we’re doing it on an approachable scale, with people who are willing to work with you. You’re not just sticking a seed in the ground, you’re learning the facts.”

Right now, Freiberg and the volunteers are focused on their winter crops. Before the seeding could begin, however, there was grunt work to be done: The more vulnerable crops need to be covered by “low tunnels” — clear, ribbed plastic domes that extend over the beds like astronauts’ visors. Freiberg asked his volunteers for help in that week’s community newsletter, anticipating that a handful would reply. Instead, attendance spiked; in two weeks, the tunnels were finished. Like Almquist, many of the volunteers intend to keep showing up throughout the colder months, both to grow and to harvest.

Some of what’s growing at the farm is the result of crowdsourcing, he says, but it’s up to the climate to decide what stays and what goes. This week, he invited the panlist to “share in the harvest of some Sylvetta arugula, salad greens, Swiss chard, sweet salad turnips, and winter parsley and surprisingly hardy cilantro.” He’s not sure if the cilantro’s going to survive the winter chill, but so far he says it’s looking pretty good. The volunteers will find out when he does if it’s going to keep.

Growing cilantro in this weather is an experiment, and there are more experiments on the way. “People are coming here with an open mind and an open mouth,” Freiberg says. He adds that more changes and innovations will come as people continue to use the Farm for research and as part of further partnerships.

But change has already begun to take place in the minds of the volunteers. The Farm may be small, but it’s home to remarkable diversity: 40 species are currently poking their heads out of the soil. They’re an example, Freiberg says, of the incredible biodiversity on the earth at large that volunteers at the Farm have the opportunity to realize – together.

“We’re bringing people here, and they’re inevitably connected to each other,” Freiberg says. “Everybody has some common ground, literally, and they’re starting to dig further into answering some of the big questions.”

* * *

On her first day at the farm, eighth grader Sarah Viele says she has some of those questions answered already. She’s crouched beside the Chinese cabbage, parting the stalks in search of unwanted weeds; Her mother, bobbing like a buoy among waves of kale, keeps watch nearby.

Straightening, Sarah fills me in on her plans. They include studying agriscience, going to culinary school and opening a business that delivers nutritious, pre-prepared meals to the elderly. She’s worked on a farm before, and she hopes to show people that farming “is really not that hard.”

“Why am I doing this? Because it’s healthier,” she declares. “If you expect to live for a hundred years eating processed foods, you’re just not going to live for a hundred years. People need to eat healthy, and know where their food comes from.” And, she adds, spending time with Mom is not too bad.

Sarah seems eager to finish talking to me. As I tuck my notebook away and turn to leave, I see her valiantly hoisting a watering can above the tall leaves of dinosaur kale with both hands; in her unsteady grip, the can rocks back and forth like a little planet knocked off its axis. It’s probably too heavy for her, but she seems to have it under control. At the West Campus Urban Farm, there’s work to be done, and someone — many someones — to do it.

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