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Duke Campus Farm Hits the Books

The one-acre farm and its staff offer a classroom education

Saskia Cornes, farm and program manager for Duke Campus Farm, welcomes guests.
Saskia Cornes, farm and program manager for Duke Campus Farm, welcomes guests.

For years, the Duke Campus Farm has provided hands-on education in agriculture to faculty, staff and students.

Increasingly, lessons are becoming more academic, as farm leaders expand their connection to move beyond the soil and into the classroom.

“We’re here to get students inspired about thinking critically about our food system and working at the farm is one way of doing that,” said Saskia Cornes, farm and program manager at the Campus Farm. “Academic work is a different avenue to fill out what we offer the Duke community.”

Over the past several years, Cornes has collaborated on a variety of classes for students with departments from Women’s Studies and Cultural Anthropology to Romance Studies and Divinity. This semester, she’s been co-teaching a course for the Nicholas School of the Environment on sustainable food systems with Charlotte Clark, assistant professor of the practice in sustainability education.

“I came to Duke with a desire to really make large-scale change to combat climate change, and in a way, Saskia’s class gave me the inspiration,” said Pauline Grieb, a sophomore who was in last year’s “Environment, Law and Literature” class with Cornes and other faculty. “I had these conceptual ideas of growing food and what that means, and it started to become so real to me.”

Grieb enjoyed the academic experience so much she started volunteering at the Campus Farm and is now part of the farm’s student crew, working part-time to grow the organic produce that ends up in Duke Dining facilities and West Union.

Cornes, who has a Ph.D. from Columbia University with a focus on the culture of agriculture, and studied agro ecology at UC Santa Cruz, ties real world and classroom experiences together to make learning more tangible. In addition to being a part of classes, Cornes and other Campus Farm staff interact with students through a DukeImmerse program that connects summer literature and biology seminars with hands-on farming.

The opportunity to learn isn’t only directed at students.

Each semester, the Campus Farm welcomes visitors from the Duke and Durham communities for workshops on agricultural topics. Past workshops have provided insight around growing mushrooms, the history and biology of corn, and dyeing clothes with indigo.

All efforts are part of a valuable education, Cornes said, because the changing climate requires new ways of thinking about how to grow and care for food, and the connections between people and agriculture grow more important.

“We need to ground these abstract topics of food systems and climate change in something real,” Cornes said. “The reality is there’s a lot of nuance to how we grow food and the impacts our choices make on our bodies, our environment and on our culture, which means we need to teach in many different ways.”