Hanwen Zhang, Contributing Photographer

On a quarter-acre lot tucked beside Yale’s West Campus front parking lot, visitors do not need to have a green thumb to cultivate cucumbers or community.

With its second year in operation, the West Campus Farm — a community-managed space led by farm manager Jordan Williams — is connecting researchers and students through tending to the farm. Though still in its infancy, the growing pilot program has been teaching the community about farming, sustainable food systems and responsible land management.

“I’m just trying to make sure that this is more of a public space, more of a welcoming space,” Williams told the News. “Part of what I’m trying to do is make [the farm] more accessible and to make people aware that it’s here.”

With 44 raised garden beds, the farm offers a small plot for any hobbyist gardener willing to take care of it. Williams said that the farm follows a community-supported agriculture model, where members invest their time in helping with the space’s upkeep in exchange for shared harvests.

Since joining the farm, Williams has grounded his gardening practices in an ethos of permaculture. He said that permaculture, which prioritizes responsible stewardship of the land and resource use, has helped establish the farm as an example of sustainable practices. Crops are grown pesticide-free and fertilized by compost, fish emulsions or mycorrhizae. 

Williams added that the farm’s focus on crop rotation and organic gardening has helped remind community members about the relationship between food sovereignty and health in an age of increasingly destructive agricultural practices.

“Having a relationship with the ingredients that you’re using and growing your own food, is really essential to people’s health,” Williams told the News. “It’s empowering to grow your own food.”

According to Williams, the lot has existed for almost a decade. Christelle Ramos, assistant director of communications for Yale Hospitality, wrote that prior to 2021, the lot — formerly known as the Yale Landscape Lab — was loosely managed by a small group of West Campus students and staff volunteers. Yale Hospitality brought Williams into the position last year to help coordinate community events and oversee maintenance, per Ramos.

Williams said that he has sought to increase the farm’s presence on the 136-acre campus. Over his first year as farm manager, he has created a GroupMe, email lists and weekly volunteer sessions for anyone interested in helping. Volunteers with garden beds can enter the space to work at any time of the day.

“The vision for the farm is centered on fostering community engagement and supporting various educational initiatives,” Ramos wrote an email to the News. “We aim to create a space to uplift and support the community—where nursing students and faculty members can take breaks to recharge, spend quality time, and even put their knowledge into practice.”

Williams said his emphasis on community-building and diversity has extended to the farm’s gardening philosophy. During a tour of the lot, he pointed to the heirloom tomatoes growing alongside black-eyed peas and mini cucumbers. Sorghum stalk brushed against corn husks in the greenhouse.

The space is also home to a handful of more lesser-known species, such as ground cherries, horsetail and burdock. A sixth-generation farmer, Williams has also introduced okra and Gungo peas that pay homage to his roots in Jamaica, Georgia and Alabama.

“A weed is just a plant that we don’t know what to do with,” Williams said. “But to me there’s no such thing as a weed. Every plant has a use.”

The harvest is not large enough to regularly supply the menus of the West Campus cafe, which serves roughly two hundred diners each day. However, Williams noted that some of the crops occasionally are featured in the cafe’s specialty farm-to-table dishes. The cafe has even used the farm’s purple sweet potatoes in fudge brownies and used a couple pounds of harvested blueberries to make jam. Williams explained that he often leaves the harvest for community members to take.

Nursing students, researchers and staff members are also invited to engage in a different kind of experimentation at the farm which is across the parking lot from the nursing school and science labs.

Molly Skinner-Day NUR ’25, a School of Nursing student, joined the farm during her first year and said that she rekindled her passion for gardening in the process. This year, she cared for a garden bed by planting butterfly seed mix, escarole, lettuce, parsley and kale. She added that the reward of spending time in nature and with others has led her to consistently return to the farm.

“For our schedules, [visiting the farm is] really tough,” Skinner-Day said. “But sometimes just being able to be out for an hour or even less is really helpful.”

Despite the successes of this year, Williams spoke about the challenges of transforming the space. Given West Campus’ seven-mile distance from New Haven, he said there has been difficulty in “building a community from scratch.” He has continued recruiting new volunteers to ensure the farm can “accommodate all the different needs from different people.”

The farm has also contended with unwanted visitors — voles and rabbits — and grappled with the effects of climate change. According to Williams, gardeners this year had to “adapt” to a dry spring and abnormally rainy summer. He explained that even small shifts in seasonal patterns can often compromise plant immune systems, making them more vulnerable to white flies or diseases like powdery mildew.

Members of the farm have since cleared their garden beds for the season, but the work does not stop. Williams said he has started preparing the seed ordering list and planning for next spring. Skinner-Day said she is looking forward to trying out new vegetables and growing garlic in the interim.

“Being a farmer is also being a scientist,” Williams said.

Yale purchased West Campus from Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 2007.