On a bright fall day, students plant sunflowers where there once was an overgrown path on the 70-acre George Jones Memorial Farm and Nature Preserve.
Visiting Instructor in Environmental Studies Brad Melzer explains that the purpose is beneficial in two ways: Not only will the sunflowers beautify a pathway leading to a pond, the seeds of the plant will provide food for birds in the winter.
The students doing the planting are part of Melzer’s Practicum in Agroecology class, which studies the ecology and economics of small-scale agricultural enterprises, using the George Jones Farm as their laboratory. Named in memory of revered Professor of Botany George Jones, the farm focuses on restoration agriculture and is home to varied ecosystems, including wetlands, prairie, forest, and vernal pools.
The expansive farmland is situated just one mile east of campus, and it is owned by Oberlin College. The land is leased to the the New Agrarian Center, the nonprofit that operates both the George Jones Memorial Farm and City Fresh, a longstanding community supported agriculture (CSA) program that began in 2005.
“The farm isn’t just a farm,” says Melzer. “It’s also a food hub, and it works with many farmers in the area.” He explains that produce from local farms is aggregated at the farm. City Fresh then makes that food available by operating what they call “fresh stops,” or stands that distribute the produce at various locations in Cuyahoga and Lorain counties, including some in food deserts.
While the farm has continued its operation, Melzer explains that it has not been as active as it once was, partially due to the lack of a farm director. But with this position now filled, the farm is taking off. “The farm is experiencing a renaissance,” says Melzer. “We want the community to know that it’s open for collaboration.”
Even during its slower periods, the farm continued to work regularly with classes in biology, geology, and environmental studies, and with the Bonner Center for service initiatives. This year, the farm is looking to reinvigorate those existing relationships as well as forge new collaborations.
Nick Swetye, director of the New Agrarian Center, explains that the farm offers student internships, work study and volunteer opportunities, and space for student organizations to hold events. It also works closely with Campus Dining Services to provide produce for the dining halls.
For students, experiences on the farm can be meaningful in shaping their careers. Hannah Rodgers ’18 credits her experience in Melzer’s Practicum in Agroecology course, along with a private reading on sustainable agriculture, with helping her understand how agricultural reform can address problems such as poverty, health, and climate change.
“My experiences in agriculture motivated me to spend time in a place where agriculture is a part of daily life, so I applied for and accepted a Fulbright English Teaching Fellowship in Nepal,” says Rodgers.
“Right now, I live in a rural community where I spend a lot of time helping to grow the food that my homestay family eats. I’m also applying to graduate schools in soil science with a focus on agricultural management practices that support soil life and reduce the need for artificial inputs, such as fertilizers.”
Swetye says that students can get involved at the farm in a variety of ways. “We’re looking for any and all kinds of volunteer service,” says Swetye. “Students can do everything that’s required on a farm—planting seeds, managing pests with organic farming methods, clearing trails, and managing invasive species.” He says that students should feel welcome to contact him to volunteer, and that he’s glad to work around busy schedules.
Melzer stresses that involving the campus will be integral to the farm’s success, and that it is open to volunteers and partnerships of any kind. “No farm is an island,” says Melzer. “It thrives on community.”
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