Cory-Watson: Respecting the soil at the DPS hub farm

May. 03, 2013 @ 07:57 PM

Recently, The Herald-Sun published a story praising the Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs in Durham Public Schools.

As a former outdoor educator with an interest in sustainable agriculture and soil conservation, I think DPS is to be praised for their CTE programming - especially for their recently opened hub farm next to Durham’s Eno Valley Elementary.

I grew up in a suburb of a southern Virginia college town. There were times when I thought that my most precious resource was the television, but, luckily, family friends who lived out on a farm who taught me otherwise. Visits to that farm shaped who I am today and I now realize that it was the catalyst for my education about our Earths’ most precious resource: the soil.

We owe our lives to the soil. Plants need the sun to photosynthesize, but without soil from which to pull carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients, we would not be here at all. We owe our soil the utmost respect. It is an incredibly diverse and complex ecosystem that demands more of our attention and care. Unfortunately, our current industrial food production system is not in line with these values.

Our agricultural system is in something of a crisis. The world population is on the rise (an estimated 9 billion by 2050), yet the natural resources that we need for our intensely managed agricultural systems are dwindling. In order to feed our growing population, we push our soils far beyond their capacity to support life, burn up soil organic matter, erode topsoil and then compensate for these deficits with synthetic additives and plowing.  These management practices just continue a cycle of soil degradation and loss. This is the paradox of industrial agriculture. 

It is also the case that the average age of U.S. farmers is almost 60-years-old and rising. Fewer people in younger generations are farming, potentially leaving us with a lack of trained farmers in the coming years. The U.S. needs a new generation of farmers and it is imperative that their training and knowledge is predicated on ecologically based management practices that are commensurate with soil conservation.

It is for this reason that I am impressed with and grateful for the initiative that DPS has taken with creating the hub farm. This is a place where students can learn to appreciate nature, farming and, perhaps most importantly, soil. It is particularly wonderful because not all students in the Durham area have access to safe, well-managed outdoor space. Outdoor experiential learning instructed by positive and enthusiastic role models has been shown to create more environmentally conscious citizens. Combining these educational elements with technical information about sustainable agricultural management practices can help to create a generation that will find solutions to the difficulties in our current agricultural system and save our precious soils.

It is true that not every student that goes through the DPS system will become a farmer, but the importance of the hub farm does not stop with agricultural training. As food and farming are so inherently vital to our lives, arguably any academic subject matter can be channeled through a student farm. Hard sciences like ecology, biology and chemistry are obvious. Social sciences such as history, anthropology and even psychology, as well as fine arts and creative writing can be deeply rooted to a farm. While these academic experiences take place outside, students can also become more familiar with and more connected to the natural world.

I was lucky to have positive and education experiences working on a farm when I was young, and it helped to shape me into the environmentally conscious person that I am today. I am happy students in our city will have this opportunity as well. The DPS hub farm is a powerful example of innovative education that is imperative for creating a sustainable future.


Damon Cory-Watson just completed his Master's of Environmental Management at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. His recent Master's project analyzed national trends in sustainable agriculture education. He and his wife currently live in Durham.