This Wednesday morning, instead of typing away at my computer or staying far too long in bed, I found myself sauntering up Prospect Street in search of an unknown destination: 345 Edwards St. More than a short stroll away from the central campus, the journey included surmounting the formidable Science Hill. But the fall weather was charming, harvest season at its finest with sunlight filtering through the leaves. As I slowly left the noisy streets and crowds of students hurrying across “downtown” Yale, I began to enter another world — papers and midterms disappeared, and I felt strangely grounded. Venturing through the gates of the Yale Farm, my feet quite literally left the concrete sidewalk and became firmly planted in the dark, fertile soil.
Part of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, the Yale Farm is a one-acre space operated by Jeremy Oldfield, YSFP’s manager of field academics, as well as 35 Yale student workers, which include farm managers and senior advisers. YSFP’s director Mark Bomford and other staff members also serve as part of the Farm’s greater support system. The main source of laborers and patrons, however, comes from its sizable group of volunteers, which can number up to 75 on a pleasant Friday afternoon. After all, who could possibly resist the freshly baked hearth oven pizzas that are one of the Farm’s trademark attractions?
Many students associate the Farm with its delicious pizza, but they are less likely to know that the land is worked 12 months a year, yielding fresh produce that is sold at the Wooster Square farmer’s market every Saturday. Even during the summer, Lazarus summer interns work to ensure that the earth is alive and cultivated. No matter what time of the year, you will always find activity on the Farm; managers and volunteers work together to weed, plant, harvest and prepare the fields for new crops as the seasons come and go. Snuggled into a beautiful corner of campus, the Yale Farm occupies a landscape distinct from the rest of Yale’s otherwise urban setting. And there, people seem to be concerned with an entirely distinct task: food.
While many of us don’t usually give second thoughts to the food we eat in dining halls and restaurants, the processes and systems behind food are some of the most important concepts on the Yale Farm. The production, consumption and dissemination of food form an ecological and sociological cycle of which the day-to-day cooked meals we consume constitute only a small part. Indeed, the Yale Farm is a practical space that puts ideas into action and concepts into practice. But to stop at the physical work would be to take a limited perspective; for those who work on and love the Yale Farm, the space means so much more.
THE PHYSICAL FARM
“Farms are inherently problem-rich environments,” Jacqueline Munno, YSFP’s programs manager for professional experience, told me on Wednesday morning. “It’s amazing to see how different students solve these problems.”
Munno added that physical laws are often played out on the Farm’s acreage as students experience the hands-on endeavors of planting, harvesting and making food. Munno herself learned how to use a spigot for the first time on the Farm, a lesson she said cannot be replicated in the classroom.
“As a physical space, the Farm is a place where students come to learn about farming and agricultural via performing tasks and actually seeing what there is to harvest and plant,” Claire Chang ’18, one of the eight student farm managers this year, said. Working the land is, after all, an essential task on any farm.
Oldfield, the Farm’s overseeing manager, mentioned that staple crops grown year-round include mustard greens, salad mixes and an assortment of roots. The Farm’s beets, radishes and turnips are often best-sellers at farmers’ markets, Oldfield said while guiding me through rows of crops.
Michael Leibwohl ’17, another student farm manager, told me that in addition to more conventional crops that can be found on most farms, Yale Farmers grow a wide selection of plants with various lesser-known uses, such as the Connecticut tobacco plant which the Farm uses as a natural pesticide.
AN OUTDOOR CLASSROOM
Rather than the sole production of crops, the Farm mainly serves an educational purpose.
“We present the Farm as one of the three major areas of the YSFP in creating food leaders in the classroom and around the world,” Oldfield said. “[The Farm] is a locus for tasks, specific skill-building, leadership experience and engagement with ecology as well as sociology.”
An American Studies major in college, Oldfield himself first became interested in agricultural labor relations after reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” His academic pursuits soon led him to investigate and experience life on an actual farm, where he fell in love with farming and decided to pursue it as a career. Still, it was literature that got him into food, Oldfield said, and the conceptual aspect of farming never quite left Oldfield’s vision.
Oldfield told me proudly that many Yale professors bring their classes to the Yale Farm, including Maria Trumpler’s ’92 “Women, Food and Culture” and Bella Grigoryan’s “Masterpieces of Russian Literature I.” Trumpler’s class used wheat from the Yale Farm to bake proto-bread in the Farm’s oven according to flatbread recipes from the Beinecke, while the space served as a real-life demonstration of what Russian farms during the era of Anna Karenina might have looked like to Grigoryan’s Russian literature class. Engineers from Yale’s CEID, Oldfield added, often envision ways to design more effective agricultural practices with the Yale Farm in mind.
“I always find it delightful to see Yale College freshmen trying to think like chickens to see how [the Farm’s ten hens] can be fed most efficiently and effectively without attracting other urban rodents,” Oldfield said.
Participation in the Farm is not limited to Yale affiliates. During my informal farm tour, children from a nearby elementary school leapt across the fields as part of the Seed to Salad program, which brings New Haven public school second-graders to the Farm. Students in the program plant the seeds for their own salads, which they eventually harvest and eat, participating in a complete planting cycle.
In addition to the Farm’s academic functions, farm managers and the YSFP team also plan speaker events and hands-on workshops that teach skills ranging from bread-baking to pickling. In fact, this afternoon, the Farm will hold an event called “Boola Brewla,” where student Jake Reznick SOM ’18 will lead attendees in beer-brewing, using hops grown on the Yale Farm as the raw ingredients.
YSFP’s Lazarus Fellow in Food and Agriculture Bella Napier ’14 is also organizing talks and teas related to the Farm this fall in a series called “Chewing the Fat — Yale Events on Food, Agriculture and the Environment.” Executive Chef of Zinc Restaurant Denise Appel recently gave a lesson in menu construction, and Dina Brewster ‘98 is scheduled to speak about her experience as a woman running a family farm. Master’s teas, it seems, are not the only venues on campus drawing remarkable individuals to share their stories at Yale.
Commenting on the nature of the Farm as an outdoors classroom, Munno said, “The bigger thought on the Farm is that whoever passes through our gates will go on to be a big system thinker who is able to support the agricultural landscape of this country.”
THE JOURNEY TO FOOD
All roads lead to food — or at least it seems so among Yale Farmers and YSFP enthusiasts. The journey to food, however, has been radically different for each individual, and every person’s story starts differently. Yet somehow their voyages have converged to a single location: the Yale Farm’s one-acre space, where they have gathered together to toil in the earth.
Jacob Wolf-Sorokin ’16, one of the Farm’s senior advisers and an EP&E major, began with a simple interest in eating but eventually discovered an intriguing relationship between food and his academic interests.
“I am fascinated by the relationship between global systems and the way in which an individual lives his or her life, and I’ve been struck by how many systems I bite into when I eat, especially after my experiences on the Farm,” Wolf-Sorokin said. “The Farm is the manifestation of one approach to agriculture, and it’s been a helpful tool in thinking about different resource systems.”
For Napier, the inspiration came from her sojourn in Paris during a study abroad session. Immersed within a dynamic city in a completely different country, Napier was cooking for herself when she became overwhelmed by the realization of just how important food was to different cultures.
Also an EP&E major, Napier shifted course after she returned from Paris, resolving to focus her studies on business ethics and corporate responsibility in the food industry.
“I realized I could spend my entire life doing this,” Napier said — and she certainly is right now.
Munno, who sees farmers as her ultimate heroes, has dedicated her career to “supporting the people who feed us.” But there’s something extra — it seems like Munno’s journey led to something more than just food. With a beautiful ring on her finger and an equally beautiful smile on her face, Munno told me that she has recently married a farmer.
Perhaps it is the no-closed-gates policy, or perhaps it is the community of diverse thinkers that have gathered on its premises, but the Yale Farm is something different. Every time student farm manager Justin Wang ’17 is on the Farm, for example, he experiences a different rhythm and is simply reminded of how alive he is.
“The farm feels magical,” Wang said.
Boola Brewla is on today for any interested takers. Long live Yale ale!