Saturday, June 30, 2012

Genuine Field Trip

I am teaching GEOG 130: Environmental Geography in each of the two summer sessions this year, using Carl Safina's The View from Lazy Point as the text for the first time. I have posted a number of articles about the book on my personal blog (also called Environmental Geography), and found that it led to a lot of productive conversations, particularly about the geography of climate change.

To complement the class discussions, we ended the first session of the course (as we will the second) with a visit to Colchester Neighborhood Farm in Plympton. The farm is over 200 years old and has been operated as an organic farm for the past decade by the Maribett family. It has several connections to the Geography Department, in which Ron Maribett is an adjunct professor and from which Nick Maribett recently graduated. My own family has been a farm-box CSA shareholder in the farm for a number of years.

Yesterday morning -- just before the heavy rains -- GEOG 130 students joined me in a visit to the farm, where Connie Maribett guided us through the fields, explaining some of the myriad innovations underway at this model of sustainable farming, while gathering the weekly farm share for my family. We explored fields whose soils had been compacted and rendered infertile by "conventional" farming practices, but which now exemplify tilth -- rich, friable, deep soil that nourishes plants.

Clover has been a big part of the tilth-building program at Colchester, because it fixes nitrogen directly from the air and put it into the soil, in contrast to most crop plants, which consume nitrogen from the soil. Some seed borrowed (OK, given) from Colchester has been used for the same purpose our own house in Bridgewater, which was the site of a previous field trip that focused on certified wildlife habitat and other environmental improvements at the household scale.We also saw how careful intercropping not only maintains soil fertility but can also be part of an integrated pest management (IPM) program to discourage beetles or other pests.

Many of the projects at Colchester Neighborhood Farm arise from its partnership with New England Village, a nearby residential program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Because meaningful work is a big part of that organization's mission, a farm is a natural partner. One common consideration for clients at New England Village is the discomfort and tedium often associated with weeding, pruning, and harvesting crops that grow close to the ground.

In the photograph above, Connie is showing how some row crops are being cultivated along fencing or angled frames to make the plants more accessible. The frames are at varying angles because it is not yet clear what will work best, but it appears likely that growing up and away from the ground can reduce insect and other pests and possible increase yields. Plants that cannot grow vertically are being transferred to raised beds that will be more easily reached by all workers. These changes are a terrific example of universal design -- the farm is becoming a more comfortable and accessible place for workers and volunteers of all ability levels.

Some of the lessons of this genuine field trip were the importance of constantly building knowledge in the pursuit of better ways to produce food. We discussed a few of the ways in which knowledge continues to be built at Colchester, including the sharing of ideas by members, participation in NOFA, and collaborations with other area farms, such as the Soule Homestead in Middleboro.

From the farm, we took a rather wide swing to the north as we headed back to Bridgewater, stopping at Brockton Brightfields. This is an innovative project that uses photovoltaic panels to produce electricity on a site that would otherwise be considered a brownfield, meaning a site that cannot be developed because of prior contamination of soil and water. It is a demonstration project that would not have been financially feasible without substantial grant funding, but as the technology improves, this could become a model for repurposing many properties around the country. Unfortunately, the public-education portion of the project was closed to the public at the time of our visit.

Casa Hayes-Boh, incidentally, has been used for more than strictly academic purposes this summer. We had a higher than usual number of geography majors taking courses in the department during the first summer session, some of whom were able to get together after class during the final week.