Cultivating A Living Classroom
What does a farm have to do with sociology? Religion? World history? For some Stonehill faculty, the answer is: more than you might think. They’re finding innovative ways to tie a 1.5-acre parcel of land on Stonehill’s campus to lessons they’re teaching in the classroom. And ultimately, these faculty members are using The Farm at Stonehill to bring to life, in a literal sense, the key pillars of a Stonehill education: a holistic academic approach that teaches critical, creative thinking; opportunities for students to discover a life of purpose; and real-world experience that lets students get their hands dirty outside the classroom.
A Seed Is Planted
The Farm at Stonehill began as a light bulb moment for Associate Professor of Religious Studies Paul DaPonte in 2010, when he served the College as vice president for Mission. During an Into The Streets community service outing with students at St. Paul’s Parish in nearby Brockton, DaPonte heard Episcopal Vicar Jacqueline Schmitt say something that would ultimately alter the landscape of Stonehill’s campus.
“She asked us if we’d ever heard of a ‘food desert,’ and most of us had not,” says DaPonte. “She said, ‘You’re standing on one.’” As DaPonte and the students came to understand, a food desert is an area where residents face great difficulty in obtaining fresh, healthful food, especially produce, relying instead on nutritionally deficient convenience foods for their diet. DaPonte was troubled by the idea of people struggling this way in Stonehill’s own backyard. When he drove back to campus and looked out at the vast stretches of the College’s land, something clicked.
DaPonte began to research the idea of creating an on-campus farm. Though he quickly found an abundance of them at other institutions, they were primarily universities with robust agriculture programs or smaller colleges driven by interest in sustainability. As DaPonte made clear in subsequent conversations with administrators and faculty to garner support for the idea, Stonehill’s farm was to be the first operated primarily with a mission of service. The Christian tradition of helping neighbors in need of nutritious food — and the implicit lessons for students achieved through that mission — was the raison d’être for The Farm from day one.
Once DaPonte’s idea took hold, his most vital task was to find the right person to manage The Farm — someone versed in farm management who would further its mission while also teaching relevant courses to, in DaPonte’s words, “reap a harvest for educational purposes.” The search ended with Bridget Meigs, who has both a master’s degree in natural resource management and an enthusiasm for mission-driven farming, gained through food security work in Kenya and Guatemala. Once she arrived on campus as farm manager and instructor, Meigs developed a sweeping support network and quickly laid the groundwork for The Farm’s first growing season in the spring of 2011.
Today, with Meigs’ guidance, The Farm at Stonehill grows around 40 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs, using organic farming methods. A typical year’s harvest yields 12,000 pounds of food that, in keeping with The Farm’s mission, is donated to four community organizations: My Brother’s Keeper, the Easton Food Pantry, The Table at Father Bill’s and Main Spring, and The Family Center at the Old Colony YMCA in Brockton. And although The Farm is just steps away from the rest of campus, Meigs and others say it offers an oasis that leads to new kinds of learning.
“It’s a place where students can get to know their professors in a way they might not in the classroom,” says Meigs. “In addition to our mission, The Farm helps students and faculty from all different disciplines, from English to science, make new academic connections as they help grow the food to fulfill our mission.”
Chicken and Egg
In Farm Manager and Instructor Bridget Meigs’ Sustainable Agriculture class, students do more than plant and weed; they must propose and then work to create a project with lasting impact on The Farm’s operation. Project proposals have ranged from adding a chicken coop to The Farm to produce eggs to building a walipini, an underground greenhouse. Meigs says the projects uniquely allow students to feel the practical impact of their work.
“The Farm gives students an opportunity to have the experience of doing research and having a practical result — it’s really satisfying,” says Meigs. “I love those moments as a teacher when you see someone’s light bulb going on.”
Food as Fodder
Meigs’ own role as a faculty member began with two Learning Communities dealing with food issues, a natural link for initial course work associated with The Farm.
The first, Food Justice, which Meigs taught with Professor of Biology and Environmental Sciences & Studies Program Director Susan Mooney, focused on the intersection between science and ethics when it comes to food production and delivery. Both Meigs and Mooney say that using The Farm as a classroom, and examining its mission in connection with food equality issues, offered students the kind of “aha!” moments that come with real-life exposure to ideas in action.
“Teaching this course at The Farm meant that students had to really think about why people might not have access to fresh food,” says Mooney. “The Farm is a laboratory that lets students develop skills to be brave, to look at what’s wrong and get conversations and actions going to address it.” Since the Learning Community, Meigs and Mooney have each turned to The Farm to help illustrate lessons in other Environmental Science courses; Meigs teaches a farm-based Sustainable Agriculture course and Mooney brings three or four environmental classes each year to work on The Farm as part of their course work.
With Food Politics, the second Learning Community, Sociology and Criminology Department Chair Chris Wetzel and Meigs sought to “turn the gaze inward” and engage students in conversations about Stonehill’s own procurement, consumption and disposal of food on campus. They brought students to The Farm as often as possible, to benefit from what Wetzel calls a “really good pedagogical tool” for the course.
“The Farm helped us to interrupt the typical rhythm of the day — running from class to class — to create different rhythms of learning,” says Wetzel. “It helped us recenter the conversation on food as a system at Stonehill by taking us to the moment of creation and production of food.”
The Price of Farming
As faculty across campus get to know The Farm, many through independent volunteer work on the “Farm Fridays” Meigs holds to gather the Stonehill community, more connections are being made between the curriculum and this on-campus outdoor “classroom.”
Sean Mulholland, associate professor of economics, saw an immediate application in his Environmental Economics course, which features a weeklong discussion on food. By bringing his students to work on The Farm, Mulholland opened up new channels for the curriculum-based discussions around types of food production and their ultimate economic impact.
“We said, ‘Let’s go out and do some work and become physically tired and then we can talk about an idea we read about,’” says Mulholland. “But what happens is the students start talking while they’re working — they’re already in a mode to talk, so it’s a great way to start conversations about the environment and farming.”
Mulholland used the experience to help illustrate the ultimate impact of using different types of farming processes — for example, the economic implications for lower-income individuals when low-intensity or organic methods raise the price of produce. He says the ability to show his students these concepts in a real-time sense improved their understanding of the true economic stakes involved.
“I could see in their final papers that the big thing they learned is how difficult it is,” says Mulholland. “We typically don’t see the difficulty when it comes to producing food — but going out to The Farm and actively doing the work requires students to understand what’s involved.”
Assistant Professor of History David Sander has found a similar way to use The Farm: to illustrate an abstract concept for his World History I students. He brought his first class to The Farm last fall as they began the course discussion on the transfer to agriculture around 12,000-8,000 BCE — the major historical movement in human history from hunting and gathering societies to agricultural production centers.
Sander says the ability to reflect on this movement in a physical way affected his students’ understanding of the actual experience of those ancient societies. “The experience was transformative for some people,” says Sander. “Just being there made it relevant — seeing how anyone gets food out of the ground helps to put a context around the human beings of 10,000 years ago working to switch over to agriculture.”
That context also helped Sander lead his class to more complex questions around agricultural transfer, including fundamental issues of spirituality, gender, labor, social class, property and politics. “The students really opened up to these questions for the first time — and that has to come through seeing yourself sweating in the field and feeling what it’s like to do that work,” he says.
Professors Nurture Lasting Inspiration
If the student reflections from Corey Dolgon’s Sociology 101 course are any indication, the experience of working on The Farm at Stonehill through the course leaves a lasting impression. “Working on The Farm helped me to understand poverty and inequality on a deeper level,” reads one. “I realized that so many of the things that I take for granted in my own life are often a privilege.”
That same sense of increased responsibility following the Food Politics Learning Community led Breanne Penkala ’15 and other students to work with professors Wetzel and Meigs to establish a new group on campus dedicated to introducing “real food” in the dining hall. A year later, their group, Food Truth, has begun to promote the importance of local, organic, fair trade and humane food across campus through a variety of ways, including a “Banana Split to Commit” event in the fall of 2013.
Penkala says the Food Politics LC and the experience of working on The Farm helped shape her passion for these issues. “It taught me that food is not just an environmental issue but also a political one — and by voting with my fork I can take a greater stand on social and environmental justice.”
The Sociology of Weeding
For Sociology Professor Corey Dolgon, director of the Office of Community-Based Learning, a successful Introduction to Sociology course is linked to two critical factors: opportunities for hands-on experience and a required community-based learning element. He offers The Farm at Stonehill as one of the community groups students can choose to partner with, and up to five students choose The Farm each semester.
“I don’t know if you can be much more hands-on than working with dirt,” says Dolgon. The Farm work ties in with several of the course’s theories, from food sustainability to the labor and economics around food — and what it means to have a food desert next door. Dolgon asks students to keep a journal of their experiences and to reflect in groups so they can think more deeply about the questions raised in the course.
“The Farm has brought these issues to bear for students who have never really thought about where their food comes from,” says Dolgon. “It shows them the differences in people’s ability to actually get food.”
Other Stonehill faculty are making connections between course work and The Farm that are more symbolic — but equally compelling.
In her Space, Place & Landscape course, Assistant Professor of English Laura Thiemann Scales uses The Farm to shape conversations around the practical use of land in literature. After reading “A Sand County Almanac” by noted conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold, her students visit The Farm to experience the working relationship with the land that Leopold references in the book.
“The experience shows them that different people with different kinds of experiences on the land might have very different ways of writing about what the land means to them,” says Scales. She asks students to reflect on the meaning of place and the ethics of land use throughout the course through readings of Thoreau’s “Walden,” Silko’s “Ceremony” and other literature dealing with the landscape.
Much like the land itself, the resulting conversation can be affected by outdoor conditions when a class visits. Scales recalls her first trip to The Farm with students on a hot and dusty day. “That group had some great conversations about how difficult it can be to link work with beauty and how the literature that does the most romantic work tends to come from a position of relative privilege and leisure,” says Scales.
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Rev. Stephen Wilbricht, C.S.C., was also inspired to use The Farm to bring to life the concept of the paschal process and the sacraments for students in his Sacraments, Justice and the Moral Life course.
He began conversations with Meigs about planting grapes, and Meigs says she realized Fr. Wilbricht was serious about the idea when one day he showed up at The Farm with grapes. Fr. Wilbricht admits the supplies were bought “rather impulsively,” but after some collective research on optimal planting methods, his class planted 20 red and white grape plants. He hopes the fruit can eventually be used for Eucharist at the Chapel of Mary or at Commencement ceremonies. In the meantime, Fr. Wilbricht says his students enjoy visiting the vines, which offer a living representation of the mutuality between creation and worship.
“Creation is a gift from God, and worship is returning that gift to God,” says Fr. Wilbricht. “I try to show students that any sort of interaction we have with the fruits of creation helps expand the way we see the liturgy in connection with our lives.”
The Farm at Stonehill: Fast Facts
• Grows 39 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs, using organic methods
A Live Lab
For Assistant Professor of Biology Irvin Pan, a plant biologist, The Farm offers an outdoor laboratory where he and his students can apply academic research. Pan realized that a farming technique called season extension could benefit both his students and the ultimate recipients of The Farm’s harvest. Broccoli, a popular vegetable with The Farm’s community partners, is an example of a plant that grows well in colder weather and thus is conducive to projects aimed at extending its availability.
Pan worked with Danielle Garceau ’15 to develop a Stonehill Undergraduate Research Experience proposal to examine the mechanisms of cold tolerance in plants — what makes some plants more likely to grow well in colder environments. Through the project, Pan and Garceau looked at the expression of cold tolerance genes in plants growing on The Farm. The pair secured additional funding from the American Society of Plant Biologists Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (awarded to Garceau) to continue the research, and this summer will present their findings at the ASPB’s national conference in Portland, Ore. Pan says The Farm played a critical role in opening up research opportunities for his students.
“It really helps students to think about how fundamental laboratory work can be applied — it’s not just characterizing a gene and then writing a paper about it,” says Pan. “With applied biology, you can answer practical questions like how can we grow more food on a planet that’s warming. On a small scale, I think The Farm is trying to tackle these kinds of problems through education and knowledge.”
To those familiar with Stonehill’s educational approach, these innovative ways in which faculty are using The Farm to create new dimensions of learning seem to be a natural fit with the College’s philosophy.
“The Farm at Stonehill has created the most unique acre on campus,” says Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Joseph Favazza. “It seamlessly integrates key aspects of Stonehill’s mission: a commitment to social justice animated by the Catholic and Holy Cross tradition, and a commitment to excellence from faculty who value experiential learning beyond the classroom.”
Faculty say that by seizing the educational opportunities offered by The Farm, they not only connect curriculum theory and practice in the many ways illustrated here, but often help lead students to even bigger lessons about community, service and all that goes into putting food on one’s table.
“The Farm is a place where creativity can happen and students can dream big,” says Meigs. “Here, they can not only work on a project but also have conversations about things like international development — and how that affects the way we operate at Stonehill.”
The ultimate impact of The Farm and Stonehill faculty’s innovative uses of it can be seen in the many students who experience it. Mulholland says that The Farm’s role in advancing the dual missions of service and education and welcoming everyone with an interest in learning has helped awaken a career- and life-changing passion for food and development issues in some students. One of Mulholland’s students, Sean Moran ’13, was inspired to take that passion to the next level, with the ultimate international service role: He’ll begin serving in the Peace Corps in Senegal this September, with a focus on agriculture.
Mulholland says, “Sean is clearly a driven and academically talented student, but it’s a testament to Bridget and The Farm that he’s had this experience and now says, ‘This is my calling — how can I build on this great foundation?’ The foundation is there because of Stonehill and The Farm.”
Mindful of Mission
Do a little digging and you’re likely to find a tradition of farms affiliated with university agricultural programs and a wave of campus farms sprouting up due to today’s popular interest in sustainability. What sets The Farm at Stonehill apart is its ongoing commitment to service in the community. According to Rev. James Lies, C.S.C., vice president for mission, with service at its core, The Farm is naturally suited to thrive on Stonehill’s mission-minded campus.
“The Farm’s work speaks directly to our Catholic mission as an institution committed to the Gospel value of seeing to the needs of those who are most in need,” says Fr. Lies. “It follows on a series of programs like H.O.P.E. Service Immersion Program, Into The Streets and community-based learning courses, which facilitate the College’s connection to the wider local and global communities.”
Fr. Lies adds that the educational uses of The Farm by faculty are a natural by-product of its original intention as a place for service.
“Our commitment to excellent teaching and academic innovation are as central to our mission as our attention to our Catholic character and Holy Cross tradition,” says Fr. Lies. “The fact that The Farm has become a seedbed for courses and research across disciplines speaks to the deepening power of its impact on our community and region.”
Fr. Lies says that part of The Farm’s success is due to its commitment to these dual missions. He credits Farm Manager Bridget Meigs with creating a sense of community around The Farm that will help keep it a vital center of learning and service at Stonehill.
“The opportunities are unparalleled,” says Fr. Lies. “With The Farm, we’ve extended the contributions of our Stonehill community, and the classrooms in which we learn, to a plot of land at the edge of our campus.”