A fundamental part of my pedagogy at the Clark Honors College at University of Oregon is fostering networks for students: between themselves, the greater university community, our Eugene community at large, and with worlds of possibilities. For the lower-division Humanities sequence food and literature class, now in its third year, I try to include an interactive component that stresses some of our community networks. As you might imagine, this is difficult given the short quarters and my mandate to teach food from the literary perspective, but we do manage to pull off something.
This year, we visited the Urban Farm on the outskirts of the university. OK, just across the street. But in many ways, it’s a homesteading plot in the wilds of the Millrace, clustered with the arts facilities. The wild, wild northwest.
This is my favorite picture from the day. It’s my students listening to Urban Farm Director Harper Keeler of the Landscape Architecture Department. He’s an active part of my food studies group and he’s been involved with the Urban Farm for a great deal of its ~30-year history. Yes, we’ve been doing the farm-to-school schtick for about 30 years!
Harper teaches classes that incorporate sustainability readings and hands-on stewardship and food growing training. He also regularly gives tours of the farm, and was kind enough to show us around. Here he’s pointing out the location of the old farmhouse that was on the property, which was once an orchard of fruit and nut trees (cherries, apples, pears, almonds, filberts, and at least one big English walnut).
What is the orchard now? Behind Harper and the compost bins made of old pallets, there’s a giant parking lot available for student athletes only while using the Jacqua Center for their tutoring appointments. A couple prized trees were saved after some negotiations, apparently.
To be fair, the entire lot wasn’t an orchard; part of it became a Coca Cola bottling plant, then the lot was used for storage and deliveries to the farm. But now it’s just an empty parking lot. A colleague who works nearby keeps a tally — once 13 cars were parked there! Usually it has one or two cars in it (two there during my day at the farm).
Land use, and the evolution (degeneration, I suppose) of a plot of soil from an orchard to an unused parking lot is fascinating for the literature scholar, because a walk becomes a story. Folks like Harper and his staff and students learn how to read the land like we read books. With fluency in parking lots and greenhouses, we can raise our own consciousnesses and those of others. I am proud to be part of the team that is making these connections start to happen.
OK, before I get off my soapbox, I just have to brag about my students.
See the woman in the blue coat? She is holding a Victorian blancmange made in our very own Clark Honors College kitchen, formerly the location of the Home Economics Department at UO. Yes, my students bring blancmanges to share with the class. Can you beat that?
The lit, high-tech greenhouse is not on the farm, alas. It’s the adjacent property, managed by one of the science programs, and allegedly the greenhouse is doing experiments with GMO crops. The Urban Farm’s greenhouse, which helps grow food for low-income programs and the 80 students a term who learn on it, is the jerryrigged, salvaged and foraged plastic one in front (which was vandalized by some moron who slashed the side with a knife). Anyone have a rich uncle? Car wash to raise funds? All we need is an empty lot…
The little contraption in the second photo above, around the back of the Urban Farm greenhouse, is a low-cost, low-fuel model developed by a student for use in developing countries. I understand he’s off in Central America testing out field models right now.
Another greenhouse, and winter crops in the front part of the 1.5 acre farm. We’re able to grow brassicas and various lettuces throughout the winter in the Willamette Valley, and the Urban Farm manages quite well, even with night-visiting nutria from the river tributary next to the farm.
The cabbages improve with frost, and I’ve found arugula almost completely loses its bitterness with all the rainfall.
A lesson I am trying to take to heart.