Growing Experiential Learning Programs on Campus Farms
December 9, 2021
Campus farms, sometimes called student farms, can be found throughout the United States. As of 2015 it is estimated that there are around 300 farms and gardens on U.S. campuses, ranging in size and age. Some began as early as the turn of the 20th century, but the campus farm movement really took off in the 1960s and 70s and has continued to grow since.
Two of the more recent campus farms can be found here at Penn and at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Penn Park Farm, led by Lila Bhide, began in 2020 and grew out of the Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative. Duke Campus Farm started in 2010 and is led by Dr. Saskia Cornes, who says it “has grown from a student-led interest group to a fully-fledged Duke institution” over the past 10 years.
On October 20, 2021, Lila and Saskia joined PPEH to present as part of our ongoing Working Wednesday sessions. During the hour-long session, they discussed their respective projects, experiential learning, and farming in elite academic contexts. The conversation included the philosophical reasons for farm work, the concrete outcomes of feeding students and neighbors with the food that each farm produces, climate resilience, and restorative justice.
Lila and Saskia were kind enough to answer a few additional questions from Field Notes managing editor Mia D’Avanza after the event--read on to learn more!
Top row: Penn Park Farm. (L) The farm site with hoop house, (R) Lila Bhide watering seeds and sprouts. Bottom row: Duke Campus Farm. (L) A person at work between the rows of vegetables, (R) Dr. Saskia Cornes with vegetables harvested from the farm.
Mia D’Avanza: How did you start with farming?
Lila Bhide: I started farming as a teenager as a participant in a program called The Food Project in Boston. What started as a high school summer job became a lifelong passion! Through working at The Food Project as a teenager and later as an adult staff member I got experience in both intensive, smaller scale urban farming and large scale suburban farming. I also learned a ton about food justice and inequities in the food system as well as how our broken food system is connected to larger social justice issues. I built close friendships and gained mentors and saw the power of food and land as a sacred place to build community. Having grown up a city girl I was surprised by how much I loved spending time in nature. I learned that I loved the sense of purpose and connection that comes with spending your days with your hands in the soil to grow food for your community! Since leaving The Food Project I have worked on farms in Boston, Utah, Ohio, and for the past five years, Philadelphia.
Saskia Cornes: I don’t come from a farming family, but I started working weekends at the farmers’ market as a teen. There, I came into contact with a community (that seemed ancient to me at the time!) who seemed to really love their work, and who loved sharing this work with others. Much later I learned that many of these farmers were at the core of the organic farming movement in Northern California – Annie and Jeff Main at Good Humus Farm, John and Gretchen Ceteras at Blue Heron Farm, Kathy Barsotti and Martin Barnes at Capay Organic. But at the time I just had the sense that these people knew something about being an adult, about working life, that I needed to know. I got a job on a small family farm in Maine the summer after my first year in college. In many ways, it was a total disaster – I slept in a mousy barn, lived off of eggs for weeks until the crops started coming in, spent my days covered in biting flies, and I’m sure I wasn’t the most efficient farmhand. But I kept coming back to the work, learning in different farms and gardens over the years, most recently at UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Growing food with others brings me a kind of contentment that’s hard to articulate, that’s very different from what I get from my academic work.
MD: What do students bring to the work that wouldn’t normally be a part of a farming job?
LB: It has been such a joy to engage students at the farm! I started the Penn Park Farm during the most intensive parts of the Covid-19 pandemic, so for a long time it was just me, joined later by a few student interns. After many months of working on my own it was so lovely to have their company and I loved the experience of working with a small group and getting to know them and their interests so well. It was an honor to witness their growth as farmers and leaders. Now that campus has opened up a bit the farm is bustling with students, just as we had imagined! I am happy to welcome volunteers to the farm and especially value our "regulars" who have committed to coming week after week despite their busy schedules. I love fostering the sense of confidence that comes from successfully completing a task, improving your agricultural skills and even teaching those skills to newer volunteers- just as my mentors did for me many years ago. Having farmed for over a decade there are practices I take for granted and it can be an exciting challenge to break down the "why" behind a task for volunteers that I have done from rote memory for years. This process has prompted me to reevaluate some of these methods and has encouraged my own learning, creativity and innovation. I have loved experimenting with students and sharing in the delights (and sometimes disappointments) that come with the trial and error.
SC: I’m lucky to have students from my humanities courses join our farm crew, and vice versa, so we have some shared frameworks for what we do on the farm – about the dignity and agency of the non-human and the work that the body can do in helping us know and understand the world. We don’t have an agriculture or horticulture program at Duke, so most students come to us with big questions, rather than technical skills. They want to know about climate change, about purposeful work, about well-being, about sustainable food systems. I’m inspired by all the things they’re attuned to, and the kinds of questions that they ask.
MD: What do you wish you could do more of?
LB: I hope to do more cooking and shared meals in the future! Our staff, students and volunteers work so hard to grow food, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have been hesitant to do much cooking or eating together. I think this joyful reward after a long and difficult season is an essential part of the farming and community building process that we have been missing these past few years. I am an avid cook in my personal life and have culinary education experience so I look forward to when it might be safe to share delicious meals with our harvests together. I think this joyful reward after a long and difficult season is an essential part of the farming and community building process that we have been missing these past few years.
SC: I wish I had more time in the field! I spent several years on the ground, running day-to-day operations at the Duke Campus Farm, but as our program has expanded, I’m doing more and more planning, fundraising, teaching - more campus-facing work. I wish I could be in both places at once.
Lila Surya Bhide helped co-found the Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative in 2019 as a winner of the Your Big Idea- Wellness Challenge. She now coordinates the Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative where she runs programming and academic partnerships and also manages the Penn Park Farm. Lila earned her BA in Environmental Studies and Political Science from Oberlin College and has a wide range of professional experience in education, sustainable agriculture, and culinary arts. Outside of work, Lila is a community organizer and has worked with organizations such as the Philadelphia South Asian Collective, Philly for Racial, Economic, and Legal Justice (better known as Philly for REAL Justice), and the Ant Smith Legal Defense Committee. She also loves to cook, read, Netflix binge, and go for hikes with her dog!
Saskia Cornes is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in the environmental humanities at Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute and the Program Director of the Duke Campus Farm. She has a PhD in English, studied agroecology at UC Santa Cruz, and has worked in sustainable agriculture in both rural and urban settings over the last ten years. Her most recent article opens a dialogue between practical and Edenic agricultural labor in Milton’s Paradise Lost.