At the university-owned Zena Farm, Willamette students live in a farmhouse for six weeks, learn about sustainable agricultural practices and are challenged to develop a personal food ethic.
After class, students work on one of the farm’s three growing areas, later using the food they grow to prepare their own meals.
At the summer institute, students take two courses, Agroecology and Perspectives in Sustainable Agriculture, taught by professors Briana Lindh and Wendy Peterson Boring.
Wrangling chickens and working the land define Zena summer experience
A student never knows what to expect on the first day of class, but it’s pretty safe to assume it will not involve gathering eggs from angry chickens — unless you are a student at Willamette University’s Zena Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture.
At 8 a.m. on Hannah Staller’s first day living at Zena Farm, she and two other students found themselves crammed into a small chicken coop with four very large hens staring them down.
“Our job was to retrieve eggs from under the hens, and none of us had ever stuck, or even thought about sticking, our hands under a chicken before,” says Staller ’14. “Every time we would approach them, the chickens would puff themselves up and begin making concerning noises.”
That morning the students decided they were not quite ready to confront the chickens, but within a few days, they all could confidently gather eggs as part of their daily chores.
“Farming is hard work, and a helpful community that roots for each other is definitely key to success,” Staller says. “Sometimes I made mistakes or was nervous about a task, but everyone — my professors included — remained patient and encouraging, which made the harder tasks so much more rewarding.”
A Unique Learning Experience
Gathering eggs on the first day of class is one of the many lessons that makes the Zena Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture a distinctive educational experience.
“Students are put in a situation where they are both interrogating the idea of sustainability and living what they feel the answer to that question is,” says Jennifer Johns, a Willamette biology professor who works with Zena Farm students. “Through the summer program, students gain experience through their own living conditions, as well as through their coursework, their fieldwork and through visits to other farms.”
At the summer institute, students live in a farmhouse for six weeks. During this time, they take two courses — Agroecology and Perspectives in Sustainable Agriculture, taught by professors Briana Lindh and Wendy Peterson Boring. The courses are designed to give students a firm understanding of sustainable agriculture practices, while also challenging them to develop a personal food ethic.
“The students don’t just get handed a whole bunch of information defining ‘this is what sustainable agriculture is,’” Johns says. “Rather, we give them the tools to ask questions about sustainability and to really decide for themselves what is sustainable and what they feel is important in the food choices they make personally.”
Victoria Binning ’14 was surprised by how intellectual the farming experience was. “When I came out, initially I thought this is just going to be farm time. I’m going to learn how to drive a tractor and have a great farmer's tan and that’s going to be it,” Binning says.
“But through the classes, I have had the opportunity to figure out how food works on a national scale and on a global scale, and really see all the political underpinnings and scientific background of food.”
Binning, who researched farm programs at other institutions before deciding on the Zena Summer Institute, says the Zena experience stands out because of its curriculum, which combines the intellectual with the actual physical work of farming.
Each day after class the students work on one of the farm’s three growing areas, and then they use the food they grow and other locally grown supplies to prepare their own meals.
“They are given a 50-pound bag of flour and a 50-pound bag of oats, and we teach them how to make bread, how to make granola and how to use vegetables out of the garden,” Johns says. “And so they begin to learn to cook seasonally and locally.”
The Farm Family
For someone without any farming experience, thinking about gathering eggs from chickens and living on a farm for six weeks might be intimidating. However, the six students at the summer institute say they overcame the challenges they faced because of the close bonds they formed with each other.
In fact, being part of such a close-knit community was even more memorable to Staller than the tasks she performed on the farm or the questions she grappled with in class. After making and eating dinner together, the students regularly spent their evenings talking and laughing without the distractions of TV or computers.
“It really did feel like we were a makeshift family,” Staller says. “We spent time together because we wanted to. I never wanted to leave the table to start my homework.”
As a professor, Johns says she has the opportunity to observe her students go on this adventure together and leave as different people. “It seems almost silly to say this six-week experience can be life changing, but for many of our students it really is,” she says.
The students who’ve lived on the farm say the Zena Summer Institute is an eye-opening experience that could benefit anyone.
“Food affects everyone, so it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are majoring in, you can be here and you should be here,” Binning says.
“It’s like a mini think tank, with just six of us hashing out ideas about sustainability and what it means to have organic food versus nonorganic, and local versus global… You figure out the systemic problems that are affecting all of us, but you also get to know yourself a whole lot better.”
The Zena Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture is open to undergraduate students of any major and class year. There are no prerequisites for the program, and students can earn up to two interdisciplinary studies credits.
Students from any undergraduate institution are welcome to participate. The program dates for summer 2013 are May 20–June 28. Applications may be downloaded on the program website, and are due Dec. 5, 2012.
• Story by Katie Huber '13, politics major