18 Questions with Emily McGinty: On the Value of Farming in a Liberal Arts Education

by Sierra Winters

For June’s 18 Questions, we sat down with Emily McGinty, co-founder of the Duke Campus Farm in Durham, North Carolina. A passionate advocate of sustainable agriculture, social justice, and higher education, Emily is now assistant program manager at DCF. With the help of many hands, DCF has evolved into a unique space for interdisciplinary learning and conversation within a liberal arts education, drawing in scientists, theologists, feminist scholars, anthropologists, and more. Join us in this interview as we explore everything from sustainable agriculture to historical inheritance, with Emily’s experience as our guide.

  1. Describe your role in establishing Duke Campus Farm.

In 2010, I had the privilege of collaborating with friends who were passionate about creating a campus farm as a living and learning laboratory in a liberal arts context. My beloved friend, co-founder, and founding farm manager, Emily Sloss was working on a class project along with a few others in which they first brainstormed the Duke Campus Farm. I joined the project because I had been managing a small community garden on campus, and I was excited to think about what was educationally and agriculturally possible on a larger scale.

  1. What was the goal at the outset of DCF, and how has it changed over the past twelve years?

We wanted to establish a place where students from all different backgrounds and disciplines could come together to farm and think deeply about the food system. Early on, we needed to focus more on building a functional farm, attending to factors like soil health and greenhouse construction. Gradually, we were able to better articulate and incorporate the multifaceted educational mission of the farm that we had envisioned – including class visits, independent projects, spring break programs, and much more.

  1. How has the relationship between the Farm and the University evolved since its inception?

Duke is a liberal arts institution, meaning it has less of the traditional agricultural programs standard in land-grant institutions. Because of this, we had to make our case that there were many great reasons to have a campus farm at Duke. Since the farm was initially conceived and pitched 12 years ago, we have reached a place where we are now met with more enthusiasm from faculty. Professors and students are approaching food from many disciplines, like anthropology, policy, engineering, and spirituality.

  1. Given that student crew members will inevitably graduate, describe how DCF aligns a constant vision with a rotating array of student initiatives and interests.

By design, we invite intentional chaos into the space. We operate around 2-4 year cycles with undergraduate and master’s students, and they often correspond to typical farm cycles where space, techniques, and crops are always changing. Some student projects, like beekeeping, have proven difficult to maintain, especially when students are away for the summer. We have learned from and adapted to these hardships; in the case of the bees, we developed a partnership with the Durham County Beekeepers Association, whose members now tend to the hives on our farm. We have way more examples of projects that build upon one another, such as one student’s tree management project that subsequent farm crews have sustained. Students are often driven to work hard because they hold a sense of accountability to the farm crews that have come before them.

  1. Abijah Gattis, an Americorps member, has recently done some great work at DCF. Is this going to be a permanent position at the farm in the future?

Abijah has been our first Americorps at the farm. They have helped us better respond to members of our audience who are more interested in intersectional food systems work than the physical act of farming. We did not want farm visitors to think their only entry ticket to the space was getting dirty and sweaty. Abijah is young enough to know what kinds of conversations college students might be interested in having at the farm. They have implemented it engagingly, both online and at the farm itself.

  1. How does DCF intentionally invite diversity into its midst?

We have had to grow and be learners in our own space-making; we did not start with all the ideas, words, and framing that we have now to describe what creating an intersectional and accessible space for a diverse set of people looks like. Diversity includes peoples’ experiences, backgrounds, families, geographies, and more. We continue to be a growing space.

  1. How does such diversity contrast with what American farming typically looks like?

I have a neighbor who descends from many generations of American farmers. I  have learned a lot by watching the surprise in his eyes when he encounters humans of so many different genders, life backgrounds, geographies, and racial and ethnic identities. While I can’t speak for him, I have been reminded that holistically, we are not used to thinking of people directly engaged in agriculture as representing so many life experiences. This land was once used for growing commercial corn, cotton, and tobacco, and so the perception of who is a farmer can still be rooted in ideas largely specific to gender and race.

  1. Describe the importance of approaching DCF with a critical academic lens; in other words, why should food and farming be anything more than food and farming?

In the past decade, we have seen an expansion of what counts as “environmental.” In contrast, people may once have assumed that only environmental students would work at the farm, but we now have a track record of hosting students from many different backgrounds. It is true that “everybody eats,” so everyone has an investment in the food system at some level.

We also consider ourselves stewards of the land that was once lived on by the Occoneechee Band of the Saponi Nation. We are increasingly focused on how to bring land acknowledgment beyond one-sentence italicized phrases on websites. We have recently been engaging more with community members and students to explore the archival materials and learn more about the history of this land. We draw inspiration from the podcast All My Relations when we consider how we can be better friends in this space.

  1. What kinds of classes have collaborated with DCF in the past?

We engage a robust and colorful range of coursework at DCF and are always fielding new inquiries. From undergraduate courses like “Food and Energy” (environmental science), “Food, Farming, and Feminism” (gender studies), and “The Environment in Law, Literature, and Science” (multi-disciplinary), to graduate courses like “Health as an Ecosystem” (bioethics, medicine) and “Food, Eating, and the Life of Faith” (Divinity), we truly haven’t met a discipline with which we can’t create a meaningful course connection.

  1. Are there any classes or student organizations you would like to see become more involved with DCF programming?

We are continually forging new connections with folks who stretch our learning and perspective. We hope to explore more in-depth relationships with courses and organizations that expand our understanding of land history, health and disability justice, cultural foodways, and many other topics. We especially love opportunities that engage mixed groups of faculty, staff, students, and community members. The graduate student-led “Unearthing Duke Forest” working group is dedicated to highlighting people and stories displaced from university and scientific archives. The “Chronic Health Conditions Storytelling Group” hosts a space for folks to listen and share personal stories in a non-academic context. We’re inspired to think and learn with these folks and many more in the coming seasons!

  1. How is the Farm’s relationship with the community in Durham County?

I feel very indebted to many proximate neighbors and community members who have taught and collaborated with us. Teachers come in many forms; we have a mural at the farm representing stories of farmwork in North Carolina that local artist Cornelio Campos helped one class create. We also engage in relational exchange with our neighbors and at conference workshops, where we explore topics like regional seed saving. I mentioned Root Causes earlier, with whom we partner to bring fresh produce to medical patients, and we have a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program for the general community as well.

  1. What is the purpose of hosting events like Contra dances and Land & Listen?

It has become increasingly important to ensure that we invite people of many different interests, backgrounds, and bodily abilities into our space. One of the ways we achieve this is by having events like Land & Listen that center on conversational learning over manual labor and grade-based projects; we can engage community members who want to learn more informally. The Contra dance is a good reminder that the farm can also be a great space for having fun and enjoying one another’s company.

Tobacco flowers with cotton balls and a corn cob harvested from the Cackalacky plot, an area at the farm where plants that represent the history of the land are grown, including those cultivated by indigenous and enslaved people.
  1. Describe the CSA program – how does it help build community, and how does it support DCF?

Our CSA program is like Hello Fresh meets the farmers’ market. It is open to the Durham community and has been a neat way to stay in conversation with all kinds of eaters. Our CSA program can be both an invitation and an onboarding tool for people who want to gain new vegetable literacy. Many choose to participate because they want to challenge themselves to learn about local produce and how to use it.

  1. How has DCF modeled itself after other campus farms, and where does it diverge?

We have been inspired by many different colleagues who have influenced our farm. Yale Sustainable Food Program built a farm a few years ahead of us, helping us make the case that there is value in having a campus farm within a liberal arts university. I recently visited the Berea College Farm in Kentucky, which has been around for many decades. The university has woven students’ work on the farm into a core element of its operations. We are now in a position where people ask us what we have learned in the past 12 years, and we are articulating our mission and operations to younger campus farms so that they don’t have to reinvent every wheel.

  1. Describe what processes you undertook to make the soil at DCF more fertile.

We use soil health as a teaching device, empowering students to work with the soil through various techniques. One day they might use broadforks to help incorporate nutrients into the soil, and another day they might plant cover crops to prevent erosion, fix nitrogen, and add organic matter into the soil. There is no replacement for learning what soil health restoration looks like without being in the space for several years. The soil in Piedmont is typically composed of a lot of red clay. Rather than think of it as an enemy, we try to think of this clay as a friend with whom to work. We look at its positive aspects, such as its ability to hold moisture well, rather than complain about its difficulties.

  1. Has it been difficult to reach a place where you only practice organic agricultural methods?

Organic practice management has not felt inhibitive to our production because it is the foundation of how we talk about why we do what we do. We think of ourselves as soil farmers before vegetable farmers. We were humbled early on by receiving advice from elder farms regarding pest pressure and poor crop performance. Most recommended rotating certain crops out, even for years at a time. Rather than looking for quick chemical fixes to exterminate pests or spraying to improve a certain crop’s health allegedly, sometimes looking at the whole ecological picture and a longer timeline is essential. 

  1. What are the benefits of adopting organic processes and inputs?

I wouldn’t have known when we started this farm that we would have seen such ecological shifts in just a decade. We have already seen macrofauna reinhabit the space; change does not have to take decades, which is reassuring for many young people today.

  1. What’s next for DCF?

Like many other programs, we are in a phase of post-pandemic re-engagement with our audience. In the immediate, we need to look back at our earlier days for community-building activities that show the community what is possible at the farm. Hopefully, this will allow us to ultimately expand program offerings across more academic departments and beyond the boundaries of the classroom and this farm. We are also interested in developing the conversation around food, wellness, and healthcare, collaborating with programs like Root Causes.

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