From Collards to College

Teaching Yale freshmen about the area's agricultural history before they even enter the classroom helps students adjust to their new home and local farms reach out to a younger generation.

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Photo by Sean Fraga

Earlier this year, nearly 50 Yale students sought me out to talk about farming. They told me about their involvement in New England agriculture, restaurant kitchens, and the sustainable food movement. All of them were interviewing for leadership positions in one of the Yale Sustainable Food Project's most popular programs--a freshman pre-orientation program called Harvest. The annual program attracts more than 75 new students, introducing them to many of Connecticut's local farms.

The pre-orientation program at Yale is made up of the same bones as one at many other universities: small groups of entering freshmen gather together a week before classes begin, and upperclassmen help them adjust to the idea of college life. Sometimes they stay in the dorms, go hiking through faraway mountain ranges, or sleep in cabins. On Harvest, they farm.

Connecticut has a rich agricultural tradition, of which the Harvest program takes great advantage. Though a small state, it has a plethora of small, sustainable farms and market gardens that raise everything from dairy to livestock, vegetables to flowers. And while each year the state loses upwards of 6,000 acres of farmland, awareness of the importance of small, farmer-owned operations has risen. Last year, about ten of these farms hosted Harvest field trips.

An individual's sense of place takes root when one digs into the soil. That sense of place can develop even more deeply when one understands the place's agricultural history.

What makes Harvest so special--and what connects the program to the broader sustainable food movement--is that these farms are almost always the ones from which Yale sources produce for its 14 dining halls. When freshmen return to campus from Harvest, their first stop is the Yale Farm. Here, we talk a little about Yale's dining system and our own educational garden. Harvesters learn about the path of the crops they helped to grow, and how that produce will wind up on their plates.

Harvesters are not the only ones who benefit. Farmers often find that with ten extra pairs of hands, they can complete big projects. A good example is Hay House Farm, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where the farmer is also a painter. He was able to finish plastering his new barn's walls, which, as is traditional, are made from hay bales.

For me, an individual's sense of place takes root more readily when one digs into the soil. And that sense of place can develop even more deeply when one understands the agricultural history of a place. Luckily, Harvest is growing. We'll have a third again as many leaders this year as we had last summer. And as it grows up, our roots, you could say, grow down.