A Budding Interest

A joint effort by an undergraduate and two Friedman School students brings agricultural studies to the Medford/Somerville campus

In the midst of discussing world food systems, Marisol Pierce-Quinonez, G11, bends down into a bed of greens and helps herself to a crisp piece of peppery arugula.

"For me, food is the connector issue between everything from climate change issues to obesity and poverty issues-all these things can be seen through the lens of food systems," says the dual-degree student from both the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the department of urban and environmental policy and planningin the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

With the bounty of produce at her feet, you might imagine that Pierce-Quinonez is standing in a vast farm in the middle of nowhere. In reality, she stands in a small garden between the South Hall and Latin Way dormitories on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus.

Marisol Pierce-Quinonez Marisol Pierce-Quinonez

The quaint plot, the brainchild of Signe Porteshawver, A11, was planted over the summer and has been the catalyst for the Experimental College course Pierce-Quinonez and fellow Friedman student Jeffrey Hake, N11, have been teaching this fall. Originally proposed to the pair by Porteshawver, the course, Emerging Alternatives in Modern Agriculture, explores up-and-coming agricultural systems, considering both the role that agriculture plays in our society and the ways in which cities and communities are becoming active players in modern agriculture.

Planting the Seed

Before coming to Tufts, Porteshawver had never even thought about gardening, let alone food policy and agriculture. It wasn't until her sophomore year that it all came together.

"I was taking an anthropology course called Native Peoples and Indigenous Rights in South America, and we talked about a group that thought disease was all ecologically based-so if you hunted too many deer, people would get sick," she says. "For some reason this idea was the coolest thing to me."

At the same time, Porteshawver says, she began reading books by food activist Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food." In spring 2009 she heard Pollan speak at the Richard E. Snyder President's Lecture Series.

"At that point, I started searching around the Internet, reading anything I could find on everything about practical gardening and policy," she says. "It just all sort of clicked."

Signe PorteshawverSigne Porteshawver

That summer-between her sophomore and junior years-Porteshawver began writing a blog, "The Veg Table."  But although it became a great way to capture her thoughts on such matters as the CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm she had joined and the Medford/Somerville food happenings and groups she had attended, it didn't satisfy her need to take action.

Then studying abroad in Costa Rica in the fall, she learned more about techniques like growing coffee in the shade and other aspects of enlightened agriculture, and she decided something needed to happen when she returned to campus that spring.

"I just began sending out emails, mostly to people I had never met, asking if anyone wanted to do something 'foodie' on campus in the spring," she says. "I got an email from Yosefa Ehrlich (A'10), saying 'Yeah, let's do this.'" And thus the student garden was born.

Keeping Things Growing

"Pretty soon we had a lot of people bringing up the issue of how the garden would continue as people moved on," Porteshawver says. "Our biggest issue was increasing student involvement and interest.

"Then we thought maybe an Experimental College course could bring students together, and maybe caring for the garden could be one of the course components. If students felt more connected to the garden, they would be more likely to want to see it thrive."

Having met Pierce-Quinonez at a tree-tapping held on campus by the local non-profit Groundwork Somerville, Porteshawver contacted her, and soon Pierce-Quinonez and Hake had signed on to help put her and Ehrlich's ideas into action.

Hake says it was clear early on that many students were in the same boat as Porteshawver-lots of interest, but no outlet. The course maxed out almost immediately, with 30 students showing up on the first day-10 more than the ExCollege limit, according to Pierce-Quinonez. "Every week, they just kept showing up," she says.

The idea was to offer a survey of all issues pertinent to food systems, which has proved to be a difficult task, since there are only two hours a week to discuss everything from the history of agriculture to ways of working with large institutions and businesses to purchase locally grown food.

"We've turned this into a course that we wish we had at the Friedman School," Hake says.

Jeffrey HakeJeffrey Hake


As Porteshawver had hoped, a percentage of the course has been dedicated to gardening time, with two of the three existing garden beds having been built and planted by the class.

"A good portion of each class has focused on teaching the students practical gardening skills," says Pierce-Quinonez. "We have covered topics such as transplanting seeds or harvesting-whatever has been seasonally appropriate for the garden.

"On many occasions we would lead classes in the garden on planting or thinning [a technique similar to weeding that reduces competition between plants and enhances growth]. It has definitely become an integral part of not only the class, but also their homework, which has been to work in the garden, keeping a log of what they have done and any changes they have noticed." 

Pierce-Quinonez feels garden work has provided something tangible that the students can relate to the topics they learn in class. "The great thing about gardening is you learn something new every time and you have to be able to roll with it," she says. "In a way, it is kind of like teaching."

With winter approaching, students have most recently learned how to prep their garden for winter, extending their growing season during the colder months.

"The first favor we did ourselves was planting cold-hardy crops that are able to better withstand the winter months," Hake says. "Then we were able to get cheap, old windows from Craigslist to create cold boxes, which basically utilize the sunlight and create a greenhouse effect, extending the life of our plants for a while longer."

Beyond the Classroom

While Pierce-Quinonez and Hake hope to obtain funding to continue the ExCollege course, Porteshawver hopes that those who missed the course this fall will look for other ways to become involved.

"Tufts' Environmental Consciousness Outreach group is currently being restructured to have varying branches, with the garden expected to be one of them," she says. "We are hoping to have an elected garden coordinator to help continue to grow a community around the garden and keep it going."

"There is a lot of concern out there that agriculture is going to fall apart, or that the only way we can continue to feed a booming world population is through conventional means of using chemicals and really intensive agriculture," Hake says. "I hope we have shown our students that there are other ways we can sustainably feed the world's population."

Pierce-Quinonez says having the opportunity to work with the undergraduate population has been "invigorating."

"It has been a while since I have been in the undergraduate setting, and it is definitely a different frame of mind," she says. "I have really appreciated working with these students who aren't as jaded as I am and still feel like anything is possible. If you recognize a problem you can go out and change it."

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