On a fall afternoon my freshman year in 2009, I stumbled onto a campus bus with a sweet-potato-stuffed backpack and an armful of other vegetables. I greeted the driver, hoping to redirect her attention from the soil collecting at my feet.
“I have extra; would you like any?” I extended a handful of something green. “It’s a leafy green thing, like lettuce but different, I think.”
She politely declined. I made a mental note to Google “arugula” when I got back to the dorm after my first harvest at the Duke Community Garden.
During a visit to Duke my senior year of high school, a group of first-year hosts introduced me to the garden. I had mumbled something to them about leaving Model United Nations and Student Government behind in the high-school time capsule. Growing food seemed so hands-on and relevant to budding conversations about health, industry, and community building. Over the summer, I Facebook-messaged the garden team and promised to bring open ears and willing hands to the student-run operation.
The garden yielded many “firsts” in my early Duke career. I picked and ate broccoli directly from its stalk. I made friends with older neighbors and the school rabbi (the garden sits behind the Freeman Center for Jewish Life), and discovered an enemy in stubborn North Carolina clay. I also left meetings confused by the number of people and policies concerned with a few students growing squash on Central Campus.
My understanding of local soil and institutional politics expanded rapidly in the following years. In November 2010, a group of students, faculty, and community members broke ground on a one-acre plot in the Duke Forest. Armed with a business plan, some borrowed tools, and the conviction that Duke had a stake in important conversations about local and global food systems, we set out to build the Duke Campus Farm.
The campus-farm team has grown its educational mission and commercial business carefully, one seed and connection at a time. We have established relationships with Duke administrators, chefs, local farmers, and academic mentors.
At a dinner over graduation weekend, the “farm family” hosted the graduates and our relatives for a homegrown feast. After eating, I was asked to talk about the impact the farm had on my Duke experience. Together, we had watched each freshly sown row give life and color to our land. We had supported our industrious farm manager, Emily Sloss ’10, as she fought to gain the administration’s respect for our agricultural venture. As time passed, we had watched Duke begin to accommodate student demand for exploring food issues in and outside of the classroom.
I told the small audience how my upcoming position as the second Campus Farm Fellow is evidence that agricultural entrepreneurship and critical thought on food systems belong at our university. I applauded our group for helping Duke realize that food and agriculture sit at the intersection of business, public policy, law, medicine, and much more. I thanked my brilliant best friends who helped me contribute to agricultural and intellectual revitalization on campus and beyond.
I confessed to the group how I used to wonder whether work boots and dirty fingernails suited this campus. I told these people I love how proud I felt to call the farm “a Duke thing,” and a respected one at that. Duke’s food-growing spaces and community have been indispensible parts of my evolution and happiness as a college student. They now will figure centrally in my life as a working professional.
A younger farm intern later presented gifts that she hoped would “always help us find our way home.” I opened a small box to find a leather bracelet, fastened with an engraved metal strip bearing the GPS coordinates of the Duke Campus Farm. The cardinal directions lead to a home I never envisioned when I arrived at Duke hoping to learn something about tomatoes. Our home is vibrant and vital, and we built it from the ground up. At the farm, we continue to cultivate crops, community, and a deeply felt sense of place.
After graduation ceremonies, I waited at the Duke bus garage to present a favorite driver with homemade jam and the address of my new house in Durham. I noticed the double bus that bears a photo of campus-farm volunteers working in the field. I smiled and adjusted my backpack, full of kale from a morning harvest.
Originally from Pittsburgh, McGinty ’13 majored in public policy studies with a certificate in policy journalism and media studies. She was a Baldwin Scholar; managed a joint Duke/UNC publication, Rival magazine; and worked for the Partnership for Appalachian Girls’ Education, a Duke-sponsored literacy program in western North Carolina.