Durham County

BACK TO THE LAND: Duke Campus Farm promotes education, food systems

Rachael Riley; rriley@heraldsun.com

DURHAM -- First-year Duke student Angela Pham spent her Sunday pulling green, leafy kale from the ground. Originally from Dallas,Texas, it was the first time Pham’s really spent time in a garden environment.

“I think is a really nice opportunity for students to get out of their comfort zone,” she said. “I’ve never gardened before. I’ve never done anything like this and I think it’s a really nice escape from campus and … my dorm room.

Pham volunteered her day at the off-campus farm, 4934 Friends School Road, as part of a community work day.

The idea for the farm originated from Duke students taking a food and energy class taught at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment by Charlotte Clark.

“They came up with a project question -- could Duke have a farm,” said Emily McGinty assistant program manager.

Though not known as an agricultural school, McGinty said the concept at other liberal arts schools -- including Yale -- was not new. It engages people from multiple disciplines, not just an agricultural background, to study food systems, she said.

“Even if they’re not going to be the ones growing it they may be the ones creating legislation around it, creating engineering and information systems around it,” McGinty said.

The farm’s founding manager was Emily Sloss, a senior at the time, and the idea was pitched to university President Richard Brodhead and university Vice President Tallman Trask.

Duke Forest provided an acre parcel to grow the food, and the farm broke ground in 2010.

It is now under Sustainable Duke.

“We’ve got six growing seasons under our belts now,” McGinty said.

The farm includes a partnership with the Durham County Beekeepers Association, but is almost exclusively mixed vegetables, which are sold to the university’s dining facilities and also sustained through community supported agriculture sponsorships for residents.

Though growing food for the dining hall is part of the overall goal, McGinty said the main goal is education.

As students graduated, a more permanent staff developed that now includes production manager Luke Howerter, McGinty and farm and program manager Saskia Cornes.

Cornes teaches classes at the university that coincide with the farm’s mission and a student crew also helps throughout the year.

Alex Sanchez-Bressler was among the student interns at the farm Sunday. Currently a junior gender studies major at Duke, Bressler recognized an interest in environmental science a couple of years ago.

“This is kind of a hands-on thing and i just really enjoyed working here,” he said. “I do a lot of weeding and compost, building, and we are making new beds.”

Volunteers also help with work on Thursdays and Sundays.

Kathy Merritt is a Duke alumna who lives close to the farm and noticed it when walking or biking. She now volunteers when she can.

“I meet a lot of students who come here and some have never spent any time on a farm growing anything, and some have spent a lot, and they all bring energy,” Merritt said.

As a pediatrician, she said she also notices the younger volunteers, including two children last summer who had never eaten fresh-grown food prior.

“Hopefully they learn about nutrition and are more likely to eat nutritionally, reasonable foods, instead of pre-packaged and fast food,” she said.

Though last week was his first time at the farm, Durham resident Ha Nguyen said he wants to instill that importance in his 4-year-old daughter, My, whom he brought with him both weekends.

“I grew up in a city, so I never did any garden work, but this is fun and I want for my kids to enjoy the nature of to farm,” Nguyen said.

From university students to volunteers, McGinty said the farm hopefully is an experience to spark further conversations.

“It’s been held as one of the cornerstones of the program that anyone can get involved easily by showing up to a workday,” she said. “That’s really been one of the common denominators about the program no matter how goals and other ambitions about integrating into the academics of the university.”

Residents interested in the 3 to 5 p.m. program held Thursdays and Sundays through the academic year and 6 to 8 p.m. in the summer or interested in the community supported agriculture sponsorship for when the produce is harvested may call 919-660-1417, e-mail dukecampusfarm@gmail.com or visit sites.duke.edu/farm/ online.