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2012-08-01 issue:

Young adults get interested in agriculture

Mennonite colleges create garden plots, summer course in agroecology.

by Serena Townsend

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“When I first began to learn about the realities of our current food system, I was appalled at the detriment to both people and the earth,” says Meg Smeltzer, a junior at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Harrisonburg, Va.

From foreground to background: Emma Dalen, Elisha Keener, Phillip Martin, and Lauren Bykowski work in the garden at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va. Photo by Josh Kanagy.

She says that food subsidies in developing countries create an unfair market and contribute to the cycle of poverty. In the United States, consumers have ready access to cheap food because farm workers elsewhere receive poor wages and little respect.

Another concern to students is soil health. Jacob Landis grew up on his family’s dairy and grain farm in Sterling, Ill., which has transitioned to organic practices and became certified organic about three years ago. Through this change, the Landis family became aware of how detrimental conventional farming can be to the land.

Anhydrous ammonia, a common form of nitrogen fertilizer, was originally used to compact the soil for runways in remote areas, says Landis, an agricultural science major at Hesston (Kan.) College. This input, combined with various pesticides, results in dead soil. Landis points out that the suffix “-cide” means death. Alternatively, he likes to think of biological farming “as using the life that God put in the soil to grow the crops instead of making a chemically balanced plant food.”

Although not all students interested in sustainable agriculture want to own farms, Landis would like to be a farmer someday. He appreciates that farmers are their own bosses and that despite having a routine, every day holds both challenges and rewards.
“There is always a chance that things won’t work out as planned,” he says, “and it forces you to trust in God.”

Mariah Martin works in the Hesston (Kan.) College garden. Photo by Leah Rittenhouse.

Hannah Eberly, a Goshen (Ind.) College senior, also sees the spirituality in agriculture.
“I find that centering myself with the changing of the seasons keeps me rooted and emotionally sustained,” she says. Eberly, who grew up on an 80-acre livestock farm in Harrisonburg, enjoys gardening as well as canning and freezing. Although her career path in nursing will not allow time for farming, she definitely wants to have a garden someday.

For Josh Kanagy, a senior at EMU, this love for the earth is also inherent.

“I grew up with dirt under my fingernails,” he says. “My mom and grammy loved to garden, and they passed that love on to me. It doesn’t matter if I’m planting something, mulching or just pulling weeds; being outside and feeling the sun on my face gives me energy.”

Mennonite colleges have caught on to this trend, and are offering ways for students to get involved in sustainable agriculture.

At Hesston (Kan.) College,
the student garden club manages a 40-by-60-foot plot, part of which lies on a neighboring property belonging to Paul Diener. Faculty and staff volunteer to help in the garden during summer vacation.

The college also owns a conventionally farmed 60-acre tract of land that may be changed to include a CSA (community supported agriculture), test plots, livestock, biofuel crops, an orchard or some combination of these.

In the spring of 2010, Emma Regier helped start the Sand Creek Community Garden, a collaboration between Bethel College, Bethel College Mennonite Church and the City of North Newton, Kan. Regier, a junior biology major at Bethel, organized a student plot this year “for students who are interested in gardening but don’t have experience or time to have their own plot. It has been a lot of fun—so far we have peas, spinach, radishes, lettuce and potatoes planted.”

EMU not only has a campus garden and composting but a small flock of chickens maintained by their Sustainable Food Initiative club. SFI plans to set up a small CSA this summer for the produce that, during the school year, goes to the campus dining hall.

Goshen College offers an agroecology concentration for environmental science majors, which includes an Agroecology Summer Intensive that spans two months every summer. In this program, available to students of all disciplines, participants take four hands-on courses while living together at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. Goshen also has began composting on campus.

Farming is not new to the Goshen College curriculum;
the school bought its first farm in 1909 to provide food to the dining hall and jobs and scholarships to students. In 1914, Goshen traded its first farm, located west of campus across the Elkhart River, for 60 acres along College Avenue. This new farm resulted from church leaders at that time urging young Mennonites to return to their rural communities to serve their churches there.

However, according to John Sylvanus in his book Goshen College 1894-1954, few students showed any interest in the program, including those from farming backgrounds. Some professors even discouraged students from participating in the School of Agriculture because they believed it did not “offer courses of sufficient scholastic value and dignity.” In addition, because of World War I, many men went back to their family farms in anticipation of a food shortage. Only one young man ever received a B.S. in agriculture from Goshen College.

Although the department eventually dissolved, Goshen again offered agriculture courses in the 1940s and ’50s. Hesston College also had a farm, from 1913 to 1956.
So what makes Goshen’s Agroecology Summer Intensive more successful? Interest.

College agriculture programs today are a result of increased student interest in the subject. When asked if she sees a growing trend in young adults toward sustainable agriculture, Maria Bowman says, “Oh yes, I believe it.” The 2009 EMU graduate says that more young adults attended this year’s Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference than any other year.

Bowman worked with New Community Project (NCP), a faith-based nonprofit that emphasizes environmental education and community outreach, at its location in Harrisonburg from spring 2010 through summer 2011. She helped initiate a school garden education program alongside Adam Campbell at Linville Edom Elementary and held weekly garden classes at Eastern Mennonite Elementary School. During the summer of 2011, she joined volunteers and interns at NCP’s sustainable living homestead in growing and harvesting produce for the Friendly City Food Co-op and running errands with bicycle trailers.

Last August, Bowman moved to Pittsburgh, where she serves in the Edible Schoolyard through AmeriCorps. The Edible Schoolyard is part of Grow Pittsburgh, an urban agriculture nonprofit with a mission to demonstrate, teach and promote responsible food production. Bowman uses raised-bed gardens at two public elementary schools to teach students about plant needs, insects, compost, cooperation and cooking. She believes in the importance of not only preserving the earth for future generations but in teaching them how to care for it.

“There’s a quiet revolution going on,” she says, “and it’s happening on rural farms, urban schoolyards and in the kitchens of my peers as they can, pickle and mince. We see what’s happening in today’s food system and know that apathy isn’t going to fix anything.”

Serena Townsend, intern for
The Mennonite this spring.

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