28 Apr Rethinking the Bard Farm
The Bard Free Press – April 2012 –
by Otto G. Berkes –
I can imagine walking into Manor for lunch and finding a tray of sautéed vegetables that I helped plant—a far cry from frozen vegetables shipped from hundreds of miles away. Through a farm, the Bard College community will learn how much work, rather than how much money, food really “costs.” Here at Bard, we interact with ideas and produce art, but few of us have had personal experience making “real” goods. Unlike other products we interact with, food is not just something we trade money for, it is something that has to be grown, taken care of, harvested, and distributed. We stand to learn a lot about how food is grown, but because of our collective unfamiliarity with farming, we may have taken ourselves on a honeymoon about what running a farm will be like.
Bard doesn’t have an Agriculture program like some state schools, so the farm doesn’t belong to a department. There is no single easily accessible group that can be used for labor – the farm will have to build that community from scratch. On top of this, most students are unskilled farmers and will need training to be useful.
This learning is one of the farm’s goals, but since different people may show up each day, the same tasks will need to be taught over and over again, putting an even heavier load on the farm coordinator, John-Paul Sliva. Though capable and committed, he will not be able to do everything himself, and as of now there is still no stable support system for him to operate the farm with. Sliva wants to help us learn about sustainable farming and the future of food, but the interest he has received thus far is only the beginning of the work necessary to actually operate the farm.
The student body is present on campus primarily in the spring and fall, while summer is the largest food-producing season. The likely primary consumer of the farm, Chartwells, normally operates through the global trade platform, and if it plans to use the farm’s produce, it may be a difficult adjustment. They are accustomed to ordering products as needed, which is not how farming works.
Not only are we used to produce being available regardless of season; we only see perfectly formed, blemish-free specimens in Kline, the Green Onion, or Hannaford. Before produce is distributed to stores, they weed out the three-pronged carrots, the lumpy beets, and the wrinkled, folded bell peppers. Eating food from a non-corporate farm will be a big change for most of us, and we will have a lot to learn and adjust to. Plants are living things, and living things are imperfect—not always the sanitized, eternally available, uniformly perfect products that we are used to seeing in stores.
Envisioning the scale of the farm is hard; most of us don’t think in acres. What is planned is a one acre farm, which is a “model” farm. There won’t be golden wheat fields extending off into the horizon, or tall cornfields to get lost in. The acre they had planned on has been realized, and covered with compost behind Manor house on North Campus. It is hard to imagine how much a yet-unplanted field can produce, but based on California Department of Finance numbers, this piece of land could be expected to produce around 10,000 pounds of food per year. That sounds like a lot, and it is, except that there are 2,000 students at Bard, and as the USDA estimates, Americans eat about 5 pounds of food per day. Bard could finish the entire annual output of the farm in one day—that is the kind of scale we are talking about.
The point is not, though, to supply all of Bard’s food. The goal is to educate, connect, and engage the Bard community with the food it relies on. With interest and engagement, not only will the food production be successful, but Silva’s educational goals will be within reach as well. The idea of the farm is great, which is why the online Kickstarter fundraiser was successful; it is a popular idea. It takes substantial community engagement to transform a good idea into a functioning operation, not to mention continued financial support from the college.
There is a great deal of interest now, as there surely will be through the first season. The real project will be turning the farm into a truly perennial and self-sustaining system—one that has a support structure within the college, not just a handful of volunteers.
The Bard Farm is a big idea, and a big commitment. Its success rests on the shoulders of the students, the administration, and the head farmer. I plan to volunteer as much as I can, for it will be a beautiful day when we can eat the fruits of our labor: produce harvested from our own backyard.