As the sun was quickly setting on a chilly November evening, sophomore Olivia Blake stood at the entrance of the metal fence, hands shoved inside her sweatshirt, swaying to keep warm as volunteers arrived.
The other director of the Cultivation Leadership Team, junior Karl Gustafson, stood next to her and made easy conversation, laughing and smiling as inside jokes were exchanged between the leaders and the volunteers. In front of them, stood a table with a bottle of hand sanitizer, a social distancing sign, and a box full of used gardening tools.
“I was at Campus Garden before I was even on campus,” Blake said, laughing as she recounted her first experience at the garden as part of her pre-orientation program.
For many students like Blake, Campus Garden is a place of familiarity and community, as well as a space to encourage sustainable agriculture and living.
The garden is a small-scale demonstration of regenerative agriculture and encompasses many of the aspects of sustainable growing including crop rotation, cover crops and the lack of pesticides. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, these practices are essential to maintaining a healthy soil, minimizing pollution and promoting biodiversity.
Through the freshly grown produce, Campus Garden also encourages eating a plant-forward diet. The New York Times believes it could save 82 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions if everyone simply reduced meat consumption by one-fourth. A reduction of meat consumption could also free up 23 million acres of land that could be restored as forests, helping to reduce the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“Our food systems, locally and globally, are vital to reducing the impact of climate change,” said Nathan Peifer, the Campus Garden manager.
The educational component of the garden is one of the main ways that students are encouraged to think more critically about the importance of food systems. Many classes from across departments visit the garden and are able to connect what they are learning in the classroom through real, hands-on experience.
“At times, students get to grow their own salad or hold a chicken and learn about how a chicken goes from what they’re holding to chicken nuggets,” Peifer said. “That’s amazing.”
Peifer believes that simply getting students out to the garden and having them experience it for themselves is one of the most influential things they can do to encourage sustainability.
However, with more regulations and limited numbers on gathering sizes due to COVID-19, the garden has to adapt.
To reduce large gatherings during the regular volunteer hours on Sundays, Campus Garden created more volunteer hours called “Connect and Cultivate” Monday through Friday to produce a greater time span for volunteers to visit the garden.
“The garden has had a better turnout this year compared to other years,” said junior Anna Loynes, a Campus Garden Intern. “I think people just want a break from studying and need to get outside.”
As one of the few in-person activities left, the garden seems to be one of the only things the pandemic did not greatly affect since its outside component is conducive to preventing the spread of the virus. It has even attracted more students from outside of the sustainability sphere, garnering interest from people with all different backgrounds.
Christian Barnard, a sophomore majoring in chemistry, began his time at the garden to get the required volunteer hours for Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity. He soon became a regular.
“I just weeded, but there was something so rewarding about manual labor and getting down on your knees and getting dirty,” Bernard said about his first experience at the garden. “It’s just fun, I mean, I got to learn what a garlic plant looks like.”
The pandemic has also driven members like junior Caroline Walker to become a leader on the Cultivation Leadership Team, which runs Connect and Cultivate hours, since her usual position as a content assistant for the Office of Sustainability was taken from her because of COVID-19.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” Walker said. “Even though I’m not working with the office in an official capacity, I’m still able to see the positive impact I’m making by working in the garden.”
Even with the changes, Blake and other volunteers are still able to hear the leaves crunching beneath their feet, watch the plants grow, and weed together in the cool air.
“I’m really glad the garden can be a safe place for students to gather and connect during this time,” Blake said.