Organic Farm Yields Produce and Engaged Learners

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Organic farmer/educator Daniel Parson instructs students during a class session at the farm.

The gift of land is a rare opportunity for most colleges, and when such a windfall does occur, it calls for careful consideration of what the best uses of the land are. In 2011 Oxford College was presented with eleven acres of pasture and woods with a 1950 ranch house only seven hundred feet from the campus, and after weighing several alternatives, the conclusion was that the best use was as an organic farm. Although its development began only a year ago, the Oxford Organic Farm is already making significant impact on the curriculum, the students, and the community.

The most visible impact is on the look of 406 Emory Street, where the farm is located. What once was a large, open pasture now is the site of quarter-acre vegetable plots. What once was a quiet homestead where nothing visible had gone on for many years now is a working farm, bustling with the energy of dozens of students.

Behind all of this are years of planning and an Emory pedigree. The property was bought in 1948 by Marshall and Fran Elizer, beloved figures at Oxford College. Marshall served in various teaching and administrative roles from 1946 to 1978, and Fran served as library assistant. When the two needed to move to assisted living about ten years ago, the move was made possible by Trulock Dickson 72OX 74C, who purchased the property from them but assured them they could return at any time. Marshall died in 2009; after Fran’s death in 2011, Dickson decided to donate the property to Oxford.

Dean Stephen Bowen says of the decision to open the farm, “As expectations for what students accomplish in the classroom have increased over the past three decades, the average student’s contact with the natural world has decreased. Many students are eager to get their hands dirty, smell freshly cultivated soil, and get a better understanding 
of where their food comes from.”

One of the first steps toward opening the farm was finding the right farmer/educator to lead. A national search found Daniel Parson, who brought fifteen years of experience to the role. He earned both a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a master’s degree in plant and environmental science from Clemson University. His accomplishments have been recognized with both the Georgia Organics Land Steward of the Year Award and inclusion on the Mother Nature Network’s 40 Farmers Under 40 list.

In twelve short months, Parson has accomplished the property’s transformation into a going concern. Cover crops have been planted to develop the soil. A well has been drilled and an irrigation system installed. A barn has been designed and built to serve as a hub for operations, housing field equipment as well as the washing fixtures, walk-in cooler, and packing areas where the farm’s produce can be prepared, packed, and distributed. The barn includes an area that can be used for teaching classes. Each week, hundreds of pounds of produce are harvested.

Much of the labor of growing and harvesting comes from Oxford students. More than 150 of them work on the farm in some capacity. Twelve students are work-study participants, logging approximately ten hours per week. The remainder are there as part of the requirements for one of their courses.

Six Oxford faculty members have incorporated the farm into their course curricula. These include classes in economics, philosophy, environmental science, sociology, and Spanish.

The farm is the actual classroom for the Sociology of Food, a class developed and taught by Deric Shannon, assistant professor of sociology. Says Shannon, “As an experiential form of teaching and learning, the farm provides fertile soil for growing both crops and engaged learners. While we discuss sociological inquiry around food, students actually help produce crops, diminishing the often wide knowledge gap between what is grown on our farms and what appears—as if by magic—on our dinner tables.”

Lindita Camaj 15OX from Bronx, New York, is a work-study student on the farm. In high school she volunteered at the New York Botanical Garden, but otherwise had no experience in growing things. She says, “I’ve learned how to plant and how to hoe. I’ve learned how much energy goes into the smallest details. I will never see carrots the same way again.”

The farm’s produce is enjoyed weekly by the thirty families who are Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscribers. In addition to sales through the CSA, Parson sells produce each week at the Emory Farmers Market. Sodexo, Emory’s food-service provider, purchases a significant amount of produce from the farm, and it winds up regularly on the plates of those eating in Oxford’s dining hall.

The property that was tended for more than fifty years by the Elizers is still in the hands of those who value the land and education, and the benefits already being reaped will continue for years to come. In short order, the Oxford Organic Farm has become what Bowen describes as, “an invaluable enhancement to an Oxford education.”

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