Food Studies: Meet Claire, Who Combines Her MFA in Creative Writing with a Minor in Sustainable Agriculture

GOOD's sixth Food Studies blogger is Claire, who's reporting on propane-powered weed torches and baby-plant spaceships from snowy Minnesota.

Food Studies features the voices of volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world.

Last week, I found myself on an almost zero degree February day, walking down a path lined by knee-deep snow on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus. Past the Cattle Barn, past the Seed House, past the Cargill Building. Off to class, to talk about weeds, and which weeds are edible and which are not, and, most importantly, organic ways to kill weeds, which not only include mulching and hand-weeding but also a propane-powered weed torch that is more or less the same thing as a flamethrower on low power. And then, after the weed talk was done, I checked on my vermicompost, which basically means that I stuck my hands in a big bin filled with worms, dirt, and decomposing food and gave it all a good stir. Mmm.

How did I get here, to hands full of rotting radicchio and worms? I came to Minnesota in the fall of 2009, for an MFA in creative writing. But while I moved from Brooklyn to Minneapolis for writing, I was also excited about the opportunities to learn about agriculture here in the heartland. In addition to writing fiction, I also write about food and the sustainable food movement, and moving to Minnesota and entering the corn-and-soybean belt seemed like the perfect opportunity to experience many of the questions I’d been writing and thinking about firsthand.

To that end, last year I took a class called the Colloquium in Sustainable Agriculture, which was not only supremely engaging, but also the prerequisite for the graduate minor. We had speakers, we had readings, we had discussions. I learned so much that semester, but still, I didn’t learn how to actually grow anything.

When I was a child, growing up in Berkeley, I had quite a green thumb; I grew radishes, carrots, lettuces, one giant pumpkin, and even made a semi-successful attempt at corn. Somewhere along the way, though, my thumb lost its verdant color. And now, at 26 years old, besides a few WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) stints, I haven’t spent much time on the land.

So this semester, I decided to get my hands dirty, and signed up for Horticulture 5131/3131, otherwise known as Student Organic Farm Planning, Growing, and Marketing. Introduced to the curriculum in 2005, the class meets twice a week throughout the spring semester, and is responsible for getting the U of M student farm, Cornercopia, up and running for the season. Over the course of the semester, the students do everything the farm requires, from seed inventory and selection to soil testing to creating a farm layout. Very little beginning knowledge is assumed, which is great for me; for example, last week we went over what a seed is—in our professor's words, "the spaceship for a baby plant.”

This class really appealed to me because, while many universities now have student farms, I don’t know of any that have an actual academic course devoted to teaching the skills needed to run the farm (and please comment if you do know of one!). I’m taking the class because I want to learn the skills, but I’m hoping to use this space to also explore some of the larger questions about how academia can approach the study of farming. And hopefully my thumb will get a little greener while I’m at it.

To be continued... Claire is a student blogger for the Food Studies feature on GOOD's Food hub (she also blogs at Food Junta). Don't miss the first posts from fellow Food Studies bloggers Michele, Megan, Leslie, Christine, and Erin, and if you're a food science or agriculture student who would like to learn more about becoming a volunteer blogger, we'd love to hear from you! You can email me, Nicola Twilley, at nicola[at]goodinc[dot]com.

Photos by the author.

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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