Duke in Pics: Getting Your Hands Dirty at Duke Campus Farm

Over the summer, volunteers work the soil and learn about sustainable agriculture

Volunteers at Duke Campus Farm plant a row of sunflowers.
Volunteers at Duke Campus Farm plant a row of sunflowers. Photos by Stephen Schramm.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a handful of Duke students and employees stood under the gazebo at the Duke Campus Farm as Saskia Cornes bounced their way.

“Do any of you have jobs right now?” asked Cornes, the farm’s manager and a professor of the practice at the Duke Franklin Humanities Institute.

Her question was greeted with shaking heads.

“Great, let’s go!” Cornes said as she led the group through a gate and into the one-acre farm filled with rows of lush lettuce, colorful flowers and dark, rich dirt.

Within minutes, the visitors were planting sunflowers, looking for Colorado Potato Beetle eggs on the underside of leaves and using broad forks to churn the earth.

Tucked away in a corner of Duke Forest, roughly six miles from campus, the farm is a living classroom, where Duke community members explore sustainable ways to grow fruits and vegetables and learn how our food system works. Once a week in the summer, the Duke Campus Farm hosts community workdays, which offer an opportunity to get your hands dirty, learn about sustainable agriculture and likely leave with some fresh produce. While everyone is welcome year round, the absence of students during the summer leaves lots of room for the Duke and Durham community to get involved and spend time outside.

“It’s been a central part of our mission from the beginning to share the work that we do with anybody who’s interested, whether they have Duke affiliation or not,” Cornes said. “I love those days. They’re one of my favorite parts of the week. I think that farming was really meant to be a group activity, so it feels very natural to be sharing that work with other people. It’s also our chance to meet new folks and share our mission and work with them.”

Here’s a look at the labor and learning on a recent community workday.

Betsy Benedict spreads compost.

Betsy Benedict, a clinical nurse in the 8100 unit of Duke University Hospital, scatters compost on what will soon be a row of sunflowers.

Rows of flowers break up the plots of vegetables. While they may eventually join vegetables in being carted off to Duke Dining facilities, the flowers also serve the important purpose of providing food for pollinators that are crucial to the life cycle of the farm’s crops.

Aastha Garde and Katie Jacobs clear weeds.

Graduate students Aastha Garde, left, and Katie Jacobs, center, came to the workday for slightly different reasons.

“I love gardening, but I don’t have time to start my own garden this year,” Garde said while weeding a plot of potatoes. “So this is perfect.”
Jacobs, meanwhile, had a simpler motivation.

“I just wanted to get outside,” Jacobs said.

Duke student Jonathan Chapman waters young sunflowers.

Duke senior Jonathan Chapman waters plants. He also pulled weeds and broke up packed soil. In a rare down moment, he surveyed a tightly-packed row of different varieties of lettuces, ranging in color from deep red to vibrant green.

“When we transplanted them, they were about two fingers wide,” Chapman said. “Now, as you can see, they’re doing well.”

Chapman is a regular at workdays, estimating that he made it out to 17 during the spring semester. While the farm has been around since 2010, it’s still growing. Pointing to recent additions such as the high-tunnel greenhouse and the improved parking lot, Chapman said being a part of that growth has been especially fun.

“It’s so great seeing the changes,” Chapman said.

Nathalie Kauz and Sara Snyder lead a tour of the Campus Farm.

After volunteers put in around 90 minutes of work – with ample breaks – Duke Campus Farm student workers Nathalie Kauz, left, and Sara Snyder, right, lead the group in a brief tour of the farm, explaining its history and purpose.

“During the summer, we run a CSA, which stands for community supported agriculture,” Snyder told the group. “You pay money up front and then every week, you get a big box of produce. It’s really fun because usually there’s a great mix of produce in there. And it’s fun for us because people that participate in CSA usually want to try a lot of different types of tomatoes and lettuces and peppers. So it’s fun to learn about all these other kinds of plants on the farm.”

There are no more shares available for this season’s Duke Campus Farm CSA. But for more information on other CSAs available through Duke’s Mobile Farmer’s Market, head here.

Casey Kuka and Melina Keighron harvest lettuce.

When the workday finishes, volunteers gather under one of the farm’s two greenhouses. Each with their own bag, the volunteers cut heads of soft lettuce, still warm from the sun, to take home.

Duke juniors Casey Kuka, left, and Melina Keighron, right, were at their first campus workday. After transplanting flowers and learning about the farm, the pair were able to gather lettuce that they said would soon go into a salad.

“We’ll definitely be coming back,” Keighron said.