Grinnell’s Green Thumbs

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 2:23 am | By Hart Ford-Hodges '10

The transition from small farms and backyard gardens to centralized agriculture has distanced us from our food. We no longer know who grows our food or how they grow it. This, in turn, distances us from our environment and community. Large-scale monocultures leave our soils vulnerable to erosion and let chemicals leach into our groundwater. Our reliance on prepared foods from grocery stores instead of whole foods from local farms weakens our local economy and our community’s health. This food system is unsustainable and harmful.

Fortunately, the status quo is gradually changing as local, small-scale producers receive more recognition and support. Grinnell College has started to be a part of that change. Students have encouraged the dining hall to incorporate more local foods into the menu. With the growing interest in agriculture on campus, small groups of students are also working to revitalize the Community Garden on campus.

This fall, Grinnellians rolled out of bed early on Saturday morning to get their hands dirty in the garden, clearing out weeds, laying down compost, and planting seeds. They transformed plots of canary grass and past-their-prime tomatoes into a four-season harvest garden with hardy greens and root vegetables. This transformation was made possible with the construction of cold frames and hoop houses, small structures that act as miniature greenhouses and protect plants from the frost. We enjoyed carrots and beets, fresh from the garden, in late November. The mistakes we made along the way created opportunities for innovation and laughter. For instance, we experimented with three different hoop houses before settling on a version that survived the Iowa winds.

Because each person contributes a unique skill set to the garden projects, we teach each other and learn from each other. With his enthusiasm for building and tinkering, Sam Calisch ’10 designed and built an 80-gallon rain catchment system that supplied the garden with fresh, clean water all semester. Elyssa Mopper ’11 led a vermiculture workshop and has helped the garden develop an effective composting system. Students living off-campus and cooks for the Vegan Co-op trudge down to the garden — even in snowy weather — to return their kitchen scraps to the land instead of to the landfill. Over fall break, a group of students, staff, and local people replastered the walls of the straw-bale tool shed.

With such a diverse group, we have been able to accomplish much more than just grow a few vegetables. We have laid the foundation for sustainable, interconnected system that captures rainwater, returns waste to natural cycles, and models natural building practices. By connecting students to the land and the food they eat, the garden has also inspired other initiatives on campus.

The Local Foods Co-op, supported by Dean Porter ’10, Ami Freeberg ’10, and Erica Hougland ’10, has connected students to Paul’s Grains, an organic producer in Laurel, Iowa. Nathan Pavloic ’10, Alex Reich ’11, and Caitlin Vaughan ’10 are spearheading a movement to establish EcoHouse, a College-owned house that would model sustainable living practices and nurture a community of environmentally sensitive activists. This summer, I will be staying in Grinnell, along with Alex Reich ’11, Eric Nost ’09, and Meredith Groves ’08 to coordinate a local foods initiative funded through the Davis Foundation.

The garden focuses and unifies diverse forms of activism, all seeking to nurture the land and our communities. It creates space for us to gather as a community to work, eat, laugh, and learn together.

Hart Ford-Hodges '10 is a Biology major from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.