Down on the farm
Growing sustainable food systems...and students
An idyllic scene unfolds on a gently sloping hill overlooking the serene blue water of Monterey Bay: not just the Bay…redwoods, weathered wooden fences, straw-hatted workers, the occasional wandering cat; a sprawl of thousands of the sweetest, juiciest, most flavorful organic strawberries you might ever put in your mouth; acres of lush green fields packed with a bountiful assortment of potatoes, lettuce, broccoli, corn, cauliflower, squash, and more, growing in tightly spaced rows; behind the fields, dozens of fruit trees—peaches, nectarines, lemons, plums, and numerous varieties of apples.
This agricultural cornucopia anchors a large organic farm and garden complex at the southern end of the UC Santa Cruz campus. Growing from an idea planted more than a half century ago, the UCSC farm and gardens became the first agricultural research center in the UC system to not only embrace sustainable agriculture and commercial organic production methods, but also to strongly acknowledge the social issues compelling their adoption. Today, this flagship of the Division of Social Sciences’ Center for Agroecology continues to serve as a state-of-the-art research facility focused on addressing food insecurity and sustainability. Its mission applies regionally, globally, and—uniquely—quite locally…on campus.
UCSC’s bustling organic farm began as a smallish garden. Two professors, Donald Nicholl and Paul Lee, hatched the idea of a student garden in the mid-1960s. As bulldozers ripped up the old Cowell Ranch to build the new UCSC college campus and the Vietnam war raged amidst widespread protests, Nicholl and Lee imagined a student garden that would have a positive impact on the campus community by connecting students to the natural world.
In a serendipitous series of events, the Countess Freya von Moltke of Bavaria graced the new campus with a visit in 1966 and heard about the garden proposal. She then convinced Alan Chadwick, whom she had met years earlier in South Africa, to come to Santa Cruz. An Englishman and former Shakespearean actor in his mid-50s, Chadwick was also—importantly—an expert gardener.
Arriving at UCSC in 1967, Chadwick set to work transforming a rocky, brush-filled slope on the east side of campus into a lush garden. As Nicholl and Lee envisioned, students flocked to this haven. Here, Chadwick taught them how to cultivate and grow fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers. A few dropped out of classes to have more time to help and learn full-time from Chadwick, whose gardening philosophy followed what he called the “biodynamic/French intensive” method. This form of organic farming uses hand tools only and eclectically follows traditional Chinese, Greek, Roman, and French horticulture practices.
As the popularity of the garden grew, so did its footprint. In 1971, the campus planning committee committed another 14 acres near the main entrance to campus, expanding the garden into a full-fledged farm where Chadwick’s techniques could be tested on a larger scale. Continuing to expand since then, the farm’s fields now fill most of the 32-acre complex. And Chadwick’s legacy of organic farming lives on, in both the entire farm and the still hand-cultivated Alan Chadwick Garden.
For more than five decades now, research at the farm has helped farmers—in California, and, increasingly, worldwide—adopt more environment-friendly and economically viable practices, including organic techniques to manage crop disease and control pests. All the work aims to increase food security through the development and promotion of sustainable food production.
“I’m catching my breath,” said Stacy Philpott, professor of environmental studies and director of the Center for Agroecology. After a short uphill walk, she paused for a moment near the top of the dirt path that leads up into the farm from the back of the 150-year-old, restored Cowell Ranch Hay Barn. Looking downhill toward the barn, the panoramic view of the Monterey Bay sparkling beneath the bright blue, cloudless sky causes her to pause a bit longer.
Large rectangular fields stretch out from both sides of the narrow path, some lined with organized rows of ankle- to waist-high leafy plants and others full of fertile, loose soil ready to plant. A hundred yards away, a student wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat kneels between rows of dirt mounds. That five-acre field, Philpott explains, is typically dedicated to research, where scientists study different farming practices, testing new methods of irrigation, soil management, or pest control. “Last year in the strawberries,” she said, “we had some engineers trying out new soil nitrate sensors to monitor the movement of nitrogen, a very important nutrient for crops.”
In 2011, Philpott eagerly applied for and accepted a job opening for an agroecologist with the Environmental Studies Department and the center. She admired the farm and its legacy and reputation for operating with a holistic view of agriculture—one, she said, that considers ecological and economic sustainability along with social justice and equity in the food system. “At UCSC, we have the reputation for thinking about transformation, and doing things differently than at the big ‘ag’ schools,” she said. In one recent example of this ethos in play, fishery experts Anne Kapuscinski and Pallab Sarker, both professors in environmental studies, designed and built an innovative facility right on the farm to study sustainable systems that closely integrate aquaculture with agriculture.
As a leader in the agroecology field, the UCSC farm hosts budding farmers, urban growers, and gardening enthusiasts from both within and outside the campus community, all hoping to take away kernels of farming and gardening knowledge that will hone their green thumbs. In addition to regularly scheduled online and in-person workshops on topics like beekeeping, gopher-proofing, and pruning, among many others, the farm offers an immersive Apprenticeship Program for early-career farmers. Philpott said she is excited about the relaunch (after a planned and pandemic-induced two-year hiatus) of this longstanding legacy program inspired by Chadwick and his early acolytes. Much like back then, apprentices spend their days getting their hands dirty as they practice organic farming techniques and learn about soil cultivation, plant physiology, and discuss the political and social contexts in which food is produced and delivered. The program enrolls “a whole array of different people, young and old,” said Philpott. “We have folks working in environmental education and urban agriculture, some wanting to start their own organic farms, several veterans, and some just wanting to improve food security in their communities.”
Though clearly a valuable resource for gardeners and farmers outside the campus community, the farm delivers its greatest impact as a classroom for UCSC students. In addition to offering a new (2020–21) agroecology major with around 40 students already enrolled, the center also employs around 50 students and supports 150 student interns every year, providing work ranging from cultivating the fields to leading educational programs for visiting children. Students also get hired to run the campus’s food pantries, with many first becoming acquainted with the campus farm as its customers, reaping the benefits of having a bountiful organic farm right on campus. Spread out across campus, the food outlets intentionally put students within easy reach of the healthy, sustainably produced food the farm supplies.
Upbeat music fills the sunlit space as the server behind the counter tops off a mug of coffee with a shot of organic macadamia milk. The mug could be from someone’s personal collection. With no cashier stand in sight, the atmosphere of the café, known as the Cowell Coffee Shop: For the Peoples, channels the relaxed vibe of hanging out in your friend’s kitchen. The “nontransactional” (i.e., free) café is the product of a collaboration between the Center for Agroecology and the campus’s Colleges, Housing and Educational Services (CHES).
The café “builds upon the idea of a gift,” said Tim Galarneau (B.A., ‘05), a center education and research specialist and co-chair of the Basic Needs Committee of the Basic Needs Initiative, a UC-systemwide program that provides resources to help students meet their basic needs, including food security, affordable housing, and mental health resources. “This isn’t a socialist, Marxist revolution, as some may intimate” said Galarneau. “It’s recognizing that the usual structures for supporting students have limits, and we can do better—we’re simply trying to ensure that all students have access to what they need to be successful.”
After graduating from high school in upstate New York, Galarneau moved across the country to work on his uncle’s horse ranch in Santa Ynez, CA, while also taking classes at Santa Barbara City College. “And then I heard about this jewel in the UC system,” Galarneau said. Knowing of Galarneau’s interest in working outdoors and connecting society and the environment, his college adviser encouraged Galarneau to check out the agroecology program at UCSC.
Once at UCSC, Galarneau quickly found purpose in advocating for UCSC to become a “self-operated” school in terms of its food sourcing. At that time, in the early 2000s, the third-party company contracted for all UCSC’s food services paid little attention to where the food it offered came from or how it was produced. In this setup, Galarneau saw an opportunity and gathered support for a system in which students could become more connected to their food. How? By terminating the 32-year-old food service contract and working to link the campus’s “jewel,” its farm, to its dining halls. “That was the first direct food relationship for the farm,” Galarneau said.
More than food
For a while, that relationship operated at a low level, with farm produce part of the mix of food supplied to the dining halls, Galarneau said. But it eventually became clear that much more was needed. In 2014, Galarneau and his Basic Needs Committee co-chair UC Berkeley–based Ruben Canedo surveyed UC students about their access to food. The results showed that, rather than an essential, basic need, many students considered the campus dining halls an unaffordable amenity and that lack of food was adversely affecting their mental health and well-being. This was the first evidence that supplying the dining halls wasn’t enough—the food wasn’t getting to the students who really needed it.
Additional research found that, because of other basic expenses, especially housing, students were often skipping meals or felt like they couldn’t afford more than one meal a day. In 2017, a study funded by the UC Office of the President as part of the university’s Global Food Initiative reported that 44% of all UC undergraduates and 23% of graduate students experience food insecurity. And, in 2018, a UCSC-focused study concurred, estimating that food insecurity affected 48% of undergraduate students and 31% of graduate students.
This is a problem that the university can’t ignore, said Heather Bullock, professor of psychology and director of the Blum Center on Poverty, Social Enterprise, and Participatory Governance, part of the Division of Social Sciences Institute for Social Transformation. “For students who are food insecure, it’s absolutely a struggle to focus on their coursework,” said Bullock, who also serves as associate dean of the Division of Social Sciences. “Just trying to meet basic needs, it’s constant wear and tear.”
Further Blum Center research has identified several factors that contribute to students’ food insecurity, including stigma, discrimination, difficulty accessing government-funded food assistance programs (aka CalFresh), high food costs, family responsibilities, cultural exclusion, and unawareness of campus resources. The problem has important consequences, leading to poor dietary habits, reduced food intake, and contributing to health problems including stress, hypertension, diabetes, and depression. In addition to its health impacts, food insecurity also trashes performance, with as many as eight of ten college students identified as food insecure reporting negative academic outcomes.
To respond to this now-well-documented problem, UCSC Basic Needs has partnered with other campus groups, including the Dean of Students Office and CHES, to better meet the food security needs of students. They’ve opened the campus food pantries and filled them with fresh seasonal food from the UCSC farm and other local sources, all available for free or much lower than supermarket prices. The Cowell Coffee Shop also operates as a “farm-to-plate” café, Galarneau said, where students can easily—and mostly for free—obtain pre-made foods, produce, coffee, and more, all sourced locally and sustainably.
“Happy Tuesday!” Galarneau greets a student intern walking into the café. She has day-old bagels to drop off, she tells him. She’s come from The Bagelry, a local bagel shop in downtown Santa Cruz. “You’ve developed quite a following with those bagels,” Galarneau said. “Everyone loves them.”
The café serves students as a refuge where they can get nourishment, including really good day-old bagels, “without worrying about what’s in their wallet and without the stigma that comes with accepting food without paying for it,” Galarneau said. In addition, the café acts as an information hub, where students can find resources to help them meet their basic needs, like how to enroll in CalFresh, or attend rent and lease workshops. “One of the most beautiful things about our basic needs work is that it’s gotten rid of the silos and created relationships across divisions,” Galarneau said. “Having staff and students connected cohesively and working together is a very powerful force of change.”
While students clearly value the access to free and low-cost food, our society teaches us that nothing is free, Galarneau said. Providing this level of support isn’t a charity handout, he said, but a critical component of achieving UC’s educational mission, a concept the Basic Needs team has worked hard to get university leaders and state legislators to understand and accept. “And it’s all actually backed by science and research,” Galarneau said.
Indeed, the most recent Blum Center research shows that, simply by providing services to make sure they are well-nourished and feel supported, UCSC Basic Needs is helping students complete their degrees on time and with higher GPAs. In addition, student participation in the program through jobs and internships, or just using its resources, encourages them to think about how they can be agents for positive change—just as Nicholl and Lee hoped they would learn through a smallish garden first planted in the late 1960s. The UCSC farm and garden has become an amazing living laboratory and teaching facility, Galarneau said. “But we’re doing so much more than growing food,” he said. “We’re really growing changemakers.”