Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Industrial agriculture has grown increasingly paradoxical, replacing natural processes with synthetic practices and treating farms as factories. Consequently, food has become a marketing entity rather than a necessity to sustain life. The American perception of food has evolved into a paradox as well, placing emphasis on health foods and fad diets, but ultimately harboring ignorance and apathy for what we put into our body. In response to the corruption of modern agriculture, there has been a recent emphasis on sustainability, organic farming, eating locally, and the Slow Food movement. Ironically, the effort to counter industrial agriculture emphasizes simplicity and entails the return to a more basic way of life.

I arrived at the University of Alabama in August, possessing a general awareness of the controversial issue from what I learned in a high school environmental science course, but not expecting to harbor a passion for sustainable agriculture. During the first week of school I stumbled upon an opportunity to visit the student organic garden (about a ten minute drive from campus), and desiring a new hobby, but mostly a way of meeting new people, I decided to go. Little did I know at the time, that seemingly insignificant one-hour visit to the garden would result in a four month independent study, a passion for food, involvement in the student organization Homegrown Alabama, inquiry into the philosophical and technical aspects of organic farming, and ultimately an increased awareness of my role in culture and perception of myself. During my first semester of college, the garden not only served as a place to meet new people, learn about plant growth and ecology, and eat fresh veggies, but also acted as a grounding force of simplicity. I expect to continue my involvement in the garden next semester, and plan to find work on an organic farm this summer. Needless to say, that one visit has inspired a passion and hobby, not to mention the assurance that no matter what lies in my financial future, I will have the security of being able to grow my own food.

With that said, I believe that more students should have the opportunity to extract personal growth from gardens. The arboretum, owned by the University, has a great atmosphere, but is inaccessible to most students who don’t have cars, don’t have the time to make the trip, or aren’t aware that it exists. Every year, college campuses around the country are establishing on-campus gardens to double as a classroom and a way in which to incorporate fresh, organic produce into dining halls and community farmers markets. This movement is an attempt to counter the previously mentioned agricultural practices, teach students the technical skills of gardening, create a sense of self-sufficiency, improve campus aesthetics, and act as a gathering place for the community. Also, evident in the growing population, climate change, and depletion of natural resources, there is a growing need to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world, and an on-campus garden would be paramount in teaching youth the value of sustainability.

Another, and perhaps more obvious benefit of instituting an on-campus garden is the food it would produce. Our perception of food is distorted; we have become so accustomed to seeing tomatoes on the grocery store shelves in December, that we have lost touch with the knowledge that tomatoes are in fact a summer crop. There are no seasons anymore. Industrial agriculture has de-emphasized the value of food, and growing up in a society where food was always accessible, I, the token American, evaluated the difference between frozen fish sticks and fresh broccoli based solely on taste. After reading Michael Pollan’s food narratives and becoming more aware of the philosophy of food, I am not only convinced that the hackneyed term “you are what you eat” is valid, but believe that food can be a lens into our culture and ourselves. Food is one of the most tangible connections to where we live, and knowing where our food comes from provides us with a sense of place in the community and in culture. A garden would allow for students to perhaps regain a trace of basic agricultural knowledge and reevaluate their relationship with food.

An on-campus garden would harbor a sense of self-sufficiency, and raise awareness about current environmental problems. The University argues that available land needs to be reserved for the potential of new classrooms in the future, and a garden would be secondary, but I view this as invalid and even contradictory reasoning. Evident in my own experience during the past four months, a garden is not just an aesthetically pleasing space, but a classroom in itself, where students would be able to make connections to their relationship to the natural world and gain insight into their own values and origins. It would be ultimately student-run, which would encourage leadership, something that exceeds what is taught in a classroom. It would encourage a more hands-on approach to learning, and transform the tangible skills into broader aspects of the students’ life. While money is needed for initial costs, the goal would be for the garden to eventually become self-sustaining and possibly turn a profit at local farmers markets. Ultimately, instituting a garden on campus would inspire creativity, community, and personal growth.

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