Growing Knowledge: The Value of University Food Gardens

In his seminal book Environment in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, David Orr argues that universities’ failure to value practical knowledge is one of the key causes of our current environmental crisis. Orr says that funneling academically-able students away from vocational courses into theory focused universities has produced a generation which is technologically illiterate and technologically incompetent. He notes that the decline in vocational education paralleled the decline of people in small-scale farming in the United States, and suggests that this has led to a growing “ignorance of how ecosystems work and how private consumption and economic growth destroy the environment…However imperfectly, farms served as a reality check on human possibilities in nature that urban societies presently lack”.

This problem is even more intense in Australia. We are one of the most urbanised nations on earth, with 90% of citizens living in towns or cities. In the 20th century, those cities were made up of generous housing lots, where people tended gardens and grew food. Millions of Australians now live in apartments or townhouses with minimal growing space. Consequently, most students come to university with little or no experience of growing food or other plants. Some, no doubt, suffer from ‘plant blindness’, a documented inability to register the existence of plants and the crucial role they play in the biosphere. This is a problem if we expect students to study the environment, climate change, green cities or urban agriculture, common topics in Australian universities.

There is something deeply irrational about staff and students writing about urban agriculture, ecology or climate change if they have never grown a plant.

Dr Cathy Sherry

Orr is an advocate of campus farms, arguing that teaching agriculture would avoid the separation of abstract intellect and practical intelligence. Campus farms could teach frugality, self-reliance, practical and ecological competence, as well as reducing food miles and closing waste loops.

Campus farms are common in the United States. Food growing was an integral part of ‘land-grant’ universities, which were given land in the 19th century to teach agriculture and disseminate research to farmers. Today, however, farms and/or food gardens can also be found on urban campuses. Students work in gardens for recreation, course credit or fee remission. Gardens are part of university sustainability initiatives, and increasingly aim to alleviate food insecurity in the student body or adjacent communities.

The University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) has 14 food gardens that repurpose underused space. Plots are available in an on-site campus garden for staff and students’ personal use, but also for academic courses as well as individual student projects. Off-campus gardens are attached to student housing, local churches or the local municipality. UCSB also has a campus farm where students can work with community groups and academics. The overall sustainability program at UCSB communicates to students that the University takes sustainability seriously.

The University of Washington in Seattle has its own 1.5 acre farm, which is used for academic courses, individual student projects, and even a CSA (community supported agriculture) program. The University employs a full-time farm manager. Food growing is also incorporated into high density sections of campus. Mercer Court is a high-rise student housing complex, constructed as five slim line buildings specifically designed to allow southern light to penetrate food gardens. The extensive beds are planted with leafy greens, berries and fruit trees, and are testament to the food producing capacity of high-density campus and city development, if properly planned.

Mercer Court and University of Washington Farm Project by GGN. Image supplied by GGN.
Mercer Court and University of Washington Farm Project by GGN. Image supplied by GGN.

Finally, Pomona College, east of Los Angeles, has an organic food garden with a long, interesting provenance. Beginning in 1998 as a composting program initiated by students mixing campus food and green waste with purpose-built stilts, the farm became the site of political activity. Concerned about safety and substance use, university administration tried to shut the farm down. Students, community members and staff successfully lobbied to save the farm and it now occupies an acre of land, with over 200 fruit trees, chickens, vegetable plots, cooking facilities, tables and a stunning, student-constructed earth dome. Visiting in the dying light of a mild California winter’s afternoon, the farm was a truly magical place.

Pomona College Farm. Image by Sdbk, sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

Australian universities are rarely blessed with campuses the size of their US counterparts, but we routinely teach environment-related subjects. In science faculties, these are studied in conjunction with practical work, but in the social sciences, (arts, law, politics, sociology, government etc) practical learning is frequently completely absent. There is something deeply irrational about staff and students writing about urban agriculture, ecology or climate change if they have never grown a plant.

In response to this problem, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has created food growing spaces to use in teaching. The first food gardens were in internal courtyards of the Faculty of Law and Justice, above the Law Library. Existing raised beds had been planted with dianella and then largely forgotten. With hard, paved surfaces, the courtyards were hot in summer, cold in winter and consequently underused by staff. Faculty leadership was keen for anyone to take an interest in the space.

University Estate Management was also supportive of staff interest, and removed the existing plantings, topped the beds up with herb and vegetable mix and mended the watering system. The garden beds were then planted by students in a land-related elective, People, Land and Community, and in Food Law. Both contain topics on urban agriculture, while the latter also covers the ecological and political implications of plant and seed patents, as well as the environmental effects of modern agriculture. As students plant, they are taught about plant reproduction; urban water supply; the advantage Australia has in a global food market as a supplier with safe soil provenance; housing development on limited, fertile, alluvial soil; companion planting, worm farming, nitrogen fixing plants and the environmental dangers of chemical fertilisers. The classes are served food planted by the previous year’s class so current students can enjoy the fruits of urban agricultural labour. For many students it is their first experience eating food that has not originated in a supermarket.

Using the Law courtyards as exemplars, a project was begun to create a wider campus ‘farm’. UNSW Urban Growers was formed, with water engineers, nutrition and chronic disease researchers, plant biologists, staff from art and design, landscape architecture, law and arts, as well UNSW Sustainability, Well-Being and the student food growing group, The Producers.

As with any urban agriculture, the most difficult task was securing land. From the outset, it was accepted that the campus ‘farm’ would constitute small, dispersed sites, linked by physical signs with a common logo, as well as a website with an interactive map.

Estate Management offered a number of sites, most of which were not viable because of building shade. The working group identified alternative sites, but all were slated for future development. However, one site had potential, in part because it is so awful. It was a north facing slab of concrete, six by three metres, inside a metal cage, adjacent to a carpark.

UNSW food gardens. Photo by Cathy Sherry.

The site was cleared and seven large, raised garden beds were planted with annual and perennial vegetables and herbs. Named the UNSW Teaching and Research Garden, the intention is for beds to be available to academics in any discipline who wanted to incorporate food growing in their courses or research. Despite bushfire smoke blanketing Sydney, by December 2019, the garden was thriving.

In early 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and Australian universities shut their campuses. The UNSW food gardens kept growing quietly and generously, but they could not be used for teaching. However, the pandemic highlighted more than ever the importance of students understanding the environmental implications of our food systems and the fragility of our supply lines.

2021 will see a revitalisation of the UNSW food gardens. Plans have been made to house worms and native bees in the Teaching and Research Garden, and chickens have been mooted. The gardens will help to ensure that UNSW students, in all disciplines, do not graduate with merely a theoretical understanding of the natural environment, but with visceral, practical knowledge and skills that make them sensitive to the fragility of the biosphere, and allow them to green their own environments, both work and home, in years to come.

Mercer Court and University of Washington Farm Project by GGN. Image supplied by GGN.