Emily Sloss wasn’t supposed to be a farmer. In fact, she was supposed to be anything but. Coming from a long line of Iowa cattle farmers, Sloss likely would have taken up the family business if it were not for her parents’ decision to move out of the heartland when she was young—a decision they made to give Sloss and her brother a chance to lead better lives.
The decision paid off. Sloss ’10 got into Duke, where she majored in public policy, but much to her parents’ surprise, upon graduating she traded in her cap and gown for a hoe and pitchfork, taking a job as the first-ever project manager of Duke’s new campus farm.
The farm—just four months into its “one year, one acre” pilot program—had its first harvest when Sloss and student volunteers collected thirty pounds of greens this April. To celebrate, students and faculty and staff members and their families gathered at the farm in Duke Forest for a weekend potluck.
Wearing a purple sundress that exposes earthy-brown shoulders, betraying the many hours she’s been rotisseried under the sun, Sloss gives her third tour of the hour to a gaggle of students, some of whom look slightly awkward, having never been on a farm. “These are radishes,” Sloss says, pointing to a cluster of red bulbs while walking backwards between rows of jungle-thick mustard greens and the calf-tickling tendrils of snap peas. “Here’s kale, and these plants with the big leaves are broccoli.”
By the greenhouse, a pair of lanky, bearded men strum guitars while little girls kneeling on a blanket play patty-cake. Sitting in the shadow of a picnic table, a saliva-lipped black lab eyes a Frisbee flung between two sandaled twenty-something guys half-hidden in thigh-high grass. The farm, a square of furrowed soil six miles from West Campus, is situated next to a narrow gravel road in a wavy green meadow that’s so wide and open it could easily support a youth soccer league or the reenactment of a large Civil War battle. As a one-acre farm, it’s just a fraction of what it once was. In 1832, the farm was a sector of a 1,600-acre corn, cotton, tobacco, and wheat plantation, parts of which were bought by Duke to be added to the forest in 1996. It had been unused ever since.
The farm broke ground—quite literally—in November 2010 when the farm’s eight-person advisory board, made up of Duke faculty members, administrators, and members of the community, paid a local farmer to plow the field. Sloss and a phalanx of volunteers then erected an eight-foot- tall deer fence made of cedar posts and black nylon netting.
The farm’s first seed—in the shape of an idea—was planted by Nate Peterson, the resident district manager of the food management company Bon Appétit, who encouraged Nicholas School visiting professor Charlotte Reeves Clark ’79, M.E.M. ’83, Ph.D. ’07 to have students in her spring 2010 “Food and Energy” course determine if a campus farm at Duke were feasible. Her students—Sloss among them—set out to answer that question, and with the help of organizations like Duke Forest (which provided a ten-acre site of cleared land), the university’s sustainability office (which offered a $14,000 startup grant for the fence, tools, and well), and Brooks Contractors, a North Carolina-based composting facility (which donated about forty tons of compost), it turns out that the answer was a resounding “Yes.”
“I’m just amazed with how quickly it’s gone,” says Clark, one of about thirty people at the gathering and a member on the farm’s advisory board. “We’re not even to a year, and it’s incredible.”
All of the fruit and vegetables produced on the farm will be sold at market rate to Bon Appétit, which operates the Marketplace dining hall on East Campus and the Great Hall on West. “I would like to see them expand to their full potential,” says Michael Moroni, Bon Appétit’s director of residential operations, who adds that the campus farm may help his company reach its target of having 20 percent of the food it serves come from local farms.
Apart from its goal to produce healthy, organic food for Duke students, the farm will serve as an educational tool. “It’s about citizenship,” says Clark. “It’s not just learning about the environmental science, but conveying that to someone in a way that they obtain skills and interest in action.” Martha Reeves, associate director of the markets and management studies program, has already used the farm as a real-world lab to develop students’ marketing skills. For their final projects, students designed a logo and print materials and created a YouTube video to get the word out to the student body that a Duke-supported farm exists so close to campus. In May, Clark hosted a faculty workshop at the farm to encourage professors to incorporate sustainability concepts into their courses.
As academia has become more conscious of the ecological, political, and ethical issues involving the production of food, colleges and universities are sprouting campus farms. According to the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes organic farming, there are currently eighty-seven campus farms nationwide, twenty-four of which have been established within the past ten years.
The size and purpose of campus farms vary considerably, ranging from Yale University’s one-acre farm, mainly used to educate students about sustainable agriculture, to Warren Wilson College’s 275 acres in Western North Carolina, which require a staff of about twenty-five students to care for ninety cows and a large swine herd that annually bring in $150,000 in meat sales.
The Duke Campus Farm has plowed just one of the ten acres of cultivable land assigned to it by Duke Forest, but given the success of their first harvest, the support of Bon Appétit, and a corps of dedicated volunteers, Clark and Sloss can’t help but dream big. “Animals. I want animals,” says Sloss, now sitting at a picnic table that volunteers built from the planks of a dilapidated barn on the property. “It’s stupid that we need to buy a lawnmower. We should just have cows out here or goats grazing for us.”
Sloss has already incorporated hens into the next phase of the farm’s development plan, but she also fantasizes about an orchard, a barn, more learning spaces, “Blue Devil blueberry jam,” honey bees, and “Project FOOD”—a week-long pre-orientation program like Project WILD or Project BUILD in which incoming freshmen would work on the farm and learn about organic farming.
“I could read and write a paper and analyze concepts, but I couldn’t build anything or take care of myself if I was lost in the woods,” says Sloss, in reference to her mind-heavy, muscle-light education at Duke. “I think this farm has a lot of potential to teach Duke students practical skills that they can’t get in the classroom and the self-confidence that comes with learning by doing.”
Sloss, who’d never grown a plant before taking the job as the farm’s sole employee, is as good a symbol as any for a culture that has, in the age of the factory farm, disavowed its agricultural roots only to come back and rediscover them in new, more sustainable ways. “It’s been just a small group of students and professors dreaming,” says Sloss. “This is what we’ve come up with so far, and it’s only been a year. Where will we be in another?”
Ilgunas A.M. ’11 is currently living in Coldfoot, Alaska, and writing his book, Vandweller: One Student’s Attempt to Get out and Stay out of Debt, about his experiences living in a van while enrolled at Duke.
One Year, One Acre
Duke campus farm reaps rewards of first harvest
August 1, 2011