By Katie Neitz

When their local grocery-store shelves are so plentifully stocked, it can be tough for many students to envision there ever being a food-supply crisis in America.

But due to very real environmental changes, most notably climate change, it’s a genuine concern for the future—one that Benjamin Cohen, associate professor of engineering studies, and Kira Lawrence, professor and head of geology, share—and one that the next generation of scientists, policymakers, economists, farmers, and consumers (aka Lafayette grads) will need to address.

With that in mind, Cohen and Lawrence created “Envisioning the Future of LaFarm,” an environmental studies and sciences capstone course 10 seniors completed this fall.

Cohen and Lawrence designed the curriculum to give students an understanding of future challenges of food production and how in order for communities to thrive, there needs to be a shift away from an over-reliance on industrial farming (which relies on fossil fuels, damages biodiversity, and centralizes food supplies) to resilient farming (which prepares agriculture to withstand climate change threats that could hurt food supplies).

The central thread through the course was LaFarm, the College’s 2.65-acre farm 3 miles north of campus, and how the College community can model the ideals of resilient farming to maximize its potential for a food-resilient future at Lafayette.

“We started with conversations about industrial-scale agriculture—and why that’s a problem—and what role college farms can play in helping to educate students about the importance of improving environmental health and human health through the choices they make about what they eat and where their food comes from,” Lawrence says. “Putting LaFarm at the center of this conversation provides a tangible lesson about how what we do locally matters to not only individuals or the College but to the broader world.”

The class was tasked with creating a plan that would make students more engaged with LaFarm throughout their collegiate career, which could then translate to making them engaged environmental citizens for life.

To achieve that goal, students split into three groups, each focused on a key area: operations, academics, and engagement. They conducted research, consulted with Sarah Edmonds, the College’s assistant director for food and farm, and analyzed best practices of other farms, college and commercial. Those findings built upon Cohen and Lawrence’s classroom instruction plus the students’ four years of environmental studies and sciences coursework and became the basis of a detailed, time-stamped action plan for the future of LaFarm.

Students presented their research and pitched their proposals to an audience of students, faculty, and staff, some of whom are members of LaFarm’s Advisory Board, on Dec. 6.

The operations team suggested several infrastructure additions, including a hoop house (short term) and a greenhouse (long term), both of which would extend the farm’s growing season and increase food production. They also detailed the benefits of installing a cooler, which would store crops before going to market, and a pizza oven to attract more student visitors and social gatherings.

Students on the academics team focused on ways to embed LaFarm into students’ collegiate experience. They proposed launching special skill-development classes at LaFarm (how to compost, how to trellis tomatoes), focusing an environmental sciences poster session on agriculture, and expanding on-campus gardens and signage.

Many students have limited exposure to LaFarm during their years at Lafayette. The engagement team presented several ideas to increase student awareness and involvement. They suggested leveraging the College’s Pre-Orientation Service Program to include a service project at LaFarm, and strengthening and expanding relationships with dining staff, ECOreps, and other student groups. They also created a series of first-time involvement materials to give students with no background an overview of what to expect at LaFarm.

Edmonds, who consulted with students throughout the project and attended the final presentation, made note of how far the students, some of whom had no prior agricultural exposure, had come.

“When they first came to LaFarm, they would talk about ‘picking’ vegetables,” she says. “Or they would talk about using a rake. Now, they are talking about ‘harvesting produce and using irrigation hoses.”

Beyond being able to now speak the language, Edmonds says she was impressed that  students were creative while still being pragmatic and mindful of limitations.

“They did the research and recognized the value of having a cooler to store produce,” she says. “But coolers can cost $17,000, so they looked at an alternative [much less costly ($700 total cost)] cool-bot we could make using a trailer we already have. I love that idea. It’s recycled, and because it uses solar panels for power, it keeps the farm off-grid. I think it’s a great example of providing a practical solution that’s also very inventive.”

This was the third year of the 400-level capstone course for environmental studies and sciences majors. Last year’s class, working under Dave Brandes, professor of civil and environmental engineering, pitched plans for improvements at LaFarm, restorative work at Bushkill Creek corridor, and a rain garden on campus. The inaugural class, co-taught by Cohen and Lawrence, formalized the Greening Lafayette program and proposed other ECOrep activities that have since been realized.

Cohen and Lawrence made LaFarm the centerpiece of this year’s coursework out of a desire to make LaFarm a bigger and more integrated part of the Lafayette experience, but also because they are committed to giving students knowledge and skills that will help them make positive contributions in a world that may face turbulent times ahead.

“The goal for the students was to help us get LaFarm to the next phase,” Cohen says. “They’ve done the research and are cueing it up for us to implement. While they may not be here when that happens, they will be taking a piece of environmental stewardship with them, and they’ll have been part of the experience changing how their community functions.”

Indeed, that lesson left an impact on Morgan Nobles ’18, an environmental sciences and economics double major, who took the capstone class this fall.

“The major takeaway I got from this class is seeing the ability that students have to encourage change,” Nobles says. “Being able to present and write information that persuades a group of people to consider new ideas is something really valuable and something I can take with me beyond Lafayette.”

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