The University of Washington Farm

Sound Consumer | September 2011

by Helen Vaskevitch

University farms have been around since the turn of the century when the state began funding land grant colleges to spread agricultural education. The University of Washington (UW) hosts a student farm these days, but it doesn’t look like a typical plot of row crops.

Nestled between two greenhouses off the Burke-Gilman trail are thriving garden beds overflowing with tomatoes and kale. Around the corner are stacks of beeboxes and a well-maintained compost pile. Chickens cluck softly as people pick raspberries in the berry patch.

This well-loved urban farm is host to a diversity of student groups and classes, and whenever you visit you’ll find someone weeding out back, starting seeds in the greenhouse, or sitting around the picnic table sharing a freshly harvested lunch. The farm was founded in 2004 by several faculty members and students in the biology department.

As one student tells it, “There were some students in the ecology class who were learning about all these heavy environmental issues ... and they wanted to do something positive, a fun project that people can be involved with.”

After a gray Seattle winter spent in classrooms, students welcome the opportunity to get outside. Today this project has blossomed into a vibrant community of hands-on learning with more than 600 members.

Besides a few faculty mentors, the farm is almost entirely student-run. There is very little hierarchy — students teach students, and anyone with an idea for a new branch of the farm is encouraged to start a committee. Among the committees started this way are the Fungi Committee and the Chicken Crew.

About a year and a half ago some students began to dream of ways that the farm could have a wider impact. They formed the Vision Team and wrote a grant proposal. In January, the UW Farm was awarded $80,000 from the Campus Sustainability Fund to carry out an expansion project at the Center for Urban Horticulture (CUH).

Now there are two sites under the UW Farm name, each with a slightly different mission. The one-acre CUH site is a demonstration production farm, with the dream of someday selling food to UW students. The greenhouse site has the feel of a large urban garden and shows that even backyard “farms” can have impressive yields.

There are many ways to learn on the farm besides being a volunteer. The farm hosts two credited classes each year: “The Urban Farm” and “The Tuesday Farm Seminar.”

The farm seminars are unique in that they’re open to both registered students and the public. Each week offers a different lecture on sustainable and/or urban farming topics. Many other classes as diverse as anthropology, English, law and biology take tours of the farm to supplement regular class material. This farm is teaching people to think critically about food issues.

While working at the farm, students learn much more than how to grow peas or build a compost pile. Public speaking skills, managing resources, writing grants and keeping a budget, leading a group, working with volunteers, interfacing with a large institution such as the university — all these skills and more keep the farm running.

Perhaps most valuable, the UW Farm offers opportunities outside the classroom for students to experiment and develop their ideas, from growing an exotic crop to mapping the edible plants on campus, to doing effective outreach.

When asked how the farm played a role in their university experience, Vision Team Facilitator Joe Marcus and Farm Coordinator Julia Reed say the farm has been crucial in shaping what they want to do with their lives.

Working on the farm has given them a place to follow their interests, a place to meet a community of peers, a place to put ideas into action. At an urban university as large as UW, the farm is one of those rare places — a place for students to call their own.

Helen Vaskevitch is a writer living in Ashland, Oregon, where she gardens with friends and studies community in all its many forms.

More about: agriculture, farming

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