Katy Giombolini '10 finds value in promoting sustainable agriculture

by University Communications,

As a freshman, Katy Giombolini ’10 considered dropping out of school to become a chef.

Only after interviewing farmers and learning about the local food movement did she discover her true purpose. Instead of cooking food for a career, Giombolini would promote the value of sustainable agriculture.

“I was always interested in environmental justice and social justice, and food seemed like a very good way to touch on all those different types of things,” she says.

At Willamette, Giombolini used a Carson Undergraduate Research Grant to educate herself about local foods. She helped found Zena Farm, and she gave a presentation about the Willamette Valley’s food resources through the Science Collaborative Research Program (SCRP).

Today, Giombolini is the education and outreach coordinator for Cascade Pacific Resource Conservation and Development, a nonprofit group invested in agriculture, economic development and conservation.

“It definitely keeps me invested and engaged in what’s going on and in making the local food system happen in this area,” Giombolini says about her job in Springfield, Ore. “I feel like I’m part of a larger community.”

Food for Thought

A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Giombolini was attracted to Willamette because of its size and location in the Pacific Northwest. Once here, she majored in environmental science and immersed herself in campus life.

One of her early endeavors was participating in the Carson Undergraduate Research Grant program, which allows students to undertake scholarly, creative or professional summer research projects. With her grant, Giombolini talked about sustainable agriculture with local farmers and lived and worked on a farm.

“I really wanted to know how big the local food movement would become,” Giombolini says. “With the grant, I was able to get a better sense of who these farmers were, who were selling at the farmers markets.”

Giombolini also learned about the rhythms of running a farm, from weeding carrots to threshing wheat.

“You are always doing something different,” she says. “You are always learning how to do something better.”

The Carson program led Giombolini to SCRP, which provides select undergraduates with the opportunity to work with faculty in the natural sciences for a nine-week summer research project.

Giombolini investigated whether the Willamette Valley could grow enough food to support its population. From that experience, she published a paper that led to her senior thesis project.

“It surprised me that we couldn’t feed ourselves by any means in the Willamette Valley,” says Giombolini, who based her analysis on USDA food guidelines. “The fruit and vegetable production was really low, and the Willamette Valley at the time did not commercially produce any oils. That’s a whole category.”

Beginning Zena Forest & Farm

In 2008, Willamette purchased 305 acres at Zena Forest, a sustainably managed forest west of Salem.

Now known as Zena Forest & Farm, students use the site to study everything from astronomy and wildlife to climate change and hydrology. They grow organic produce for the campus community, and they learn how the local landscape ties with such disciplines as politics, biology, English and art history.

When Giombolini was a senior, she contributed to Zena’s development by coordinating weekly volunteer groups to tend a vegetable garden.

“It’s amazing how much it has grown,” says Giombolini, who recently visited the farm as a guest lecturer. “Students are selling produce at Bon Appetit. They have a farm stand. They have two greenhouses. The university has given the students the ability to invest their time and creativity to making choices that affect the farm, and that’s really great to see.”

Biology professor Jennifer Johns and history professor Wendy Petersen Boring teach courses at Zena and have taken leading roles in the farm’s evolution. Friends with Giombolini from the time she was a student, they describe her as unassuming and hard-working.

“She is one of the best human beings I know,” says Petersen Boring, who got ordained to officiate Giombolini’s wedding two years ago. “She is well grounded and very, very kind. She asks tough questions to challenge policies statewide.”

Johns agrees, adding that Giombolini embodies Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

“I think Katy is intensely loyal and passionate about the things she believes,” Johns says. “Her convictions are deeply held, and she lives by them. She wants to create a food system that’s better for everyone.”

Community Building

Through her job as education and outreach coordinator at Cascade Pacific RC & D, Giombolini helps run the Berggren Demonstration Farm, where she grows produce and cares for ducks, goats, rabbits and other livestock.

She is the program coordinator for the Southern Willamette Chapter of Rogue Farm Corps, a leading farmer-training program that oversees farming internships and workshops. She’s also the co-planner for the Local Food Connection, a business-to-business conference that connects food producers with area food buyers.

“My job offers a nice balance,” Giombolini says. “All these awesome groups are doing this work, and together, you can see a change from where we were a few years ago.”

Because of her time at Willamette, Giombolini says she not only discovered her true calling, she learned how to transform her interests into a fulfilling career.

“Willamette gave me the tools to do work I’m passionate about, and it gave me the freedom to explore my interests in my own way,” she says. “My job keeps me invested and engaged in what’s going on in making the local food system happen in this area. Food security is not just about food, it’s about community building.”