Fingers, weary from typing on laptops, find themselves guiding dirt-coated bulbs into a sweet potato bed teeming with undulating earthworms. Nearby, spades and shovels sing a steady chorus of clanking and crunching.
As dusk approaches, students and community members dust the dirt off their knees. They gather to prepare a meal of hearth oven-cooked pizzas, topped with fresh potatoes, sun-gold tomatoes, sage and ricotta cheese. They rest; they eat.
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It is one of the thrice-weekly volunteer workdays at the Yale Farm, located on Edwards Street atop Science Hill.
Surrounded by an expanse of industrial-looking laboratories and University buildings blackened with age, the five-year-old, one-acre farm — a model of organic, sustainable agriculture operated by the Yale Sustainable Food Project — is an Edenic anomaly on Yale’s campus in urban New Haven.
Some students willingly make the trip up to the Farm for its workshops, volunteer workdays and other events. It is a stark, if brief, escape from the “Yale bubble,” though the Farm is, in a variety of ways, an agrarian utopia disconnected from real-world agricultural process. And because its founders sought to endow its workers with knowledge rather than pay, the Farm is perhaps most accurately described as the best-fertilized classroom on campus.
A “Real” Farm?
YSFP Director Melina Shannon-DiPietro, who has been with the Yale Farm since the “ground was being tilled,” said the idea for the Farm was conceived by a group of students and came to fruition in 2003 with the University’s help.
“The idea was to give students this hands-on connection to land so they could experience principles of sustainability up close,” Shannon-DiPietro said.
But Richard Espinosa ’10 said he thinks the Farm misrepresents the true toils of agricultural production and is, at best, out of place on an urban, Ivy League campus.
“The very name ‘Yale Farm’ is cringe-worthy enough — what on earth does menial labor have to do with this ivory tower of ours?” he wrote in an e-mail. “The Yale Farm, simply put, is pastoral fantasy.”
Farm employee Kris Baxivanos ’10 acknowledged this apparent incongruity.
“The idea of creating manual labor at a highbrow university might seem a little strange on the outside,” she said.
And Farm affiliates readily recognized that the Farm is, at least in some ways, decidedly not “real.”
“We are a real farm in that we are growing food from the ground,” explained Doug Endrizzi ’10, a Farm employee. “We are not a real farm in that our livelihoods explicitly do not depend on how well we do that.”
Lee West ’10, who works at the Farm as a pizza maker, added that the labor that takes place at the Farm is “not at all similar” to the work in larger-scale, economically viable agriculture. So while the Farm’s practices are similar to those of any small, organic, sustainable farm, Endrizzi said, Yale has the luxury of University funding and cheap, plentiful labor.
In fact, he said, there was recently discussion among YSFP staff members over whether to call the Farm a “farm” or the alternative term, “market garden.”
“There is a fetishization of physical labor there,” said David Thier ’09, formerly an intern and manager and now a blogger for the Farm.
Still, he noted, this fetishization is ultimately productive — both physically for volunteers and agriculturally in terms of crop yields. (Thier is a staff reporter for the News.)
An Educational Model
Although produce grown at the Farm is mostly sold at the Wooster Square farmers’ market, the Yale Farm’s primary function is educational rather than commercial, Shannon-DiPietro said.
“We should be really ready to acknowledge that students are learning at the Yale Farm; they are not earning their living by the sweat of their brow,” she said. “We’re teaching students about sustainable agriculture. We’re not measuring our success in how many bushels of wheat they bring in.”
The decision to emphasize directed education was a conscious one, Shannon-DiPietro said. For contrast, she pointed to the Stanford Community Farm. There, according to staffer Stacey Wirt, a large part of the farm consists of individual agricultural and garden plots maintained by university faculty, staff, students and alumni.
“We wanted to be able to create an educational environment and have been able to increase the farm’s educational capacity by having a master plan for it,” Shannon-DiPietro explained.
In many ways, she said, the work students do at the Farm is more akin to the work they might do in a chemistry laboratory or an art history section. The ultimate goal of these and the Farm’s educational processes are to help shape Yale students into leaders in their respective fields, she explained. The skills students learn at the Farm, Baxivanos added, are not a “novelty,” but skills students can later apply “as part of our responsibility to ourselves, to our community, to our nation and to our Earth.”
Endrizzi, for one, said he plans to go into teaching, and “teaching about agriculture and sustainable agriculture would be a big part of that.”
Plus, Farm volunteer Alice Buttrick ’10 said, many Connecticut organic farmers are actually Ivy League-educated. “Farming, and in particular sustainable farming, is an intellectual pursuit which requires serious training and study,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Still, none of this is to say that students do not have other less lofty reasons for trekking up to the Farm for some down-and-dirty digging.
“It’s nice to get off campus onto this beautiful plot of land where the sun is shining and actually move your body a little bit,” said West, who likened work at the Farm to sports for the non-athletic. “Also, I think it’s a really great social environment.”
A Campus Niche?
For Frances Douglas ’11, a regular volunteer at the Farm, tasks like harvesting carrots provide a great way to meet and interact with other people.
In fact, four Farm employees and volunteers interviewed said the social experience the Farm offers, with Yalies and New Haven community members, is one of the primary reasons for their involvement.
“I feel the people who go up there tend to go back,” Douglas said. “It is a niche,” she added, in the same sense that other campus groups are.
When the only signs the general student body sees of the Farm are volunteers’ YSFP tote bags and occasionally muddied knees, “I think it’s possible for a student who’s never been to the Farm to perhaps perceive it as some kind of exclusive experience,” Baxivanos said.
Even though the YSFP advertises Farm events, Jackie Bruleigh ’11 said, she thinks its physical distance from the heart of campus translates to a certain psychological distance as well.
Bruleigh said she has been to the Farm only a few times, though she just found out yesterday that the Farm offers more than one workday per week.
“I think it is a very specific group that knows about it and goes up there,” she said.
And the popular criticism of the sustainable food movement as elitist does not help, said Zan Romanoff ’09, a publicity intern for the YSFP.
“The most obvious area where we’ve fallen short is probably in effectively combating the notion that the Farm is somehow elitist or not serious, that it’s a place for snobbish foodies to gather and snack on heirloom tomatoes and pat one another on the back for being more cultured than anyone else,” she wrote in an e-mail.
One month ago, students joined a crew of professional barn raisers to erect a wooden pavilion on the Farm. After a day of hoisting beams and hammering pegs, Yalies and community members sat down to a dinner made from truly local produce, harvested right there earlier that week.
Through events such as the pavilion-raising and last year’s pig roast, Thier said, the Farm could attract more students and increase its visibility on campus. In addition, he hopes the farm and its produce will play a greater role in Yale academics, he said.
Although Shannon-DiPietro cited Chemistry Chair Gary Brudvig as one of the professors who have used the Farm as a resource in their courses, she said “We want to keep doing that, and we want to grow that.”
In comparison, the University of California at Davis Student Farm functions largely as a formal program within the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said that farm’s director, Mark Van Horn.
Students might better connect with the Yale Farm if the professors actively took advantage of it in their courses, Thier said. “We’ve had classes up in the past, but there are way more classes on food and agriculture at Yale than actually come up to the Farm.”
Bringing students to the Farm may also be up to people like Ida Assefa ’09. A former Farm intern and current Farm manager, Assefa is also a coordinator for Food From the Earth, a student-run food sustainability organization on campus.
Whereas the YSFP is an office within the University, Assefa said, FFE is a student association and can take more a more activist stance, by, for example, pressuring the administration to meet student demand for increased sustainable fare in dining halls.
Beyond the Ivy League
The Farm’s reach, employees and volunteers said, is meant to extend beyond Yale’s campus, into the Elm City and the global community.
New Haven community members volunteer heavily at the Farm’s workdays, Douglas said, and Farm workers interact with townies weekly at the Wooster Square farmers’ market.
“To me, it’s important to get outside of the Yale bubble,” Douglas noted.
Endrizzi is the Farm’s student leader on public school outreach. He said his job is making sure the Farm “has a face” in New Haven by going into schools and connecting with teachers to encourage them to bring their classes to the Farm. The YSFP is still formalizing the process for this kind of interaction, as well the curriculum it will use to teach students, he explained. But the program is one the YSFP intends to grow, Shannon-DiPietro said.
The Yale Farm’s influence is also felt beyond New Haven, she added.
“When you put a farm on a place like Yale’s campus, because it is a privileged place, people pay attention,” Shannon-DiPietro said. “Our commitment to food, agriculture and the environment has caused other institutions to pay attention.”
Last week at Harvard University, she said, administrators met to discuss an expansion of that school’s food sustainability program to encompass more of the type of work the YSFP does.
At the beginning of this month, Josh Viertel, formerly co-director of the YSFP, took the helm of a national sustainable-food nonprofit, becoming president of Slow Food USA. And this week, Shannon-DiPietro added, a Yale delegation is attending an international conference on global food sustainability, held in Torino, Italy.
While most U.S. colleges and universities present at the gathering of policy makers, journalists, farmers, chefs and students will have three or four delegates, Yale has 12, she said.
Even if the Farm itself isn’t “real,” its volunteers and staff have sown the seeds — both local and global — of agricultural change.