Reading about the intricacies of agriculture is much different than actually digging your hands in the dirt.
Ten students from three Northwest private colleges — the University of Puget Sound, Willamette University and Whitman College — are stepping outside the classroom and into the real world of agriculture this summer.
They’re taking an immersive course about how locally grown food impacts people, the economy and politics, said Emily Peine, UPS professor and lead instructor for the course.
It incorporates 20 geographic sites and six service learning projects bundled with textual material to provide a hands-on approach, she said.
The class is headed to Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, this week after the students spent a week in Tacoma, the home of UPS. They started with a week in the Walla Walla Valley, where Whitman is located.
One of the main lessons in Tacoma was the lack of access to healthy food among low-income residents.
“Most of them have not experienced food insecurity,” Peine said of the students. “Most of them know where their next meal comes from.”
The three-week class is the first of its kind in a five-school collaboration called the Northwest Five Consortium. Part of the purpose is to strengthen relationships among liberal arts colleges.
Peine said the idea came while dreaming about ways her students could access amenities that aren't available at UPS, such as a small-scale farm at Willamette.
“Just reading might not impact (students) the way working in 100-degree heat with farm workers does,” Peine said.
She said the consortium was the perfect answer for piecing together resources and exposing students to professors at other colleges.
Planning the course started two years ago. The goal was to create a three-week class that wouldn’t be possible for just one college to accomplish on its own campus, said Kris Bartanen, dean and academic vice president at UPS.
In Tacoma last week, the students packed meals for a summer lunch program, visited the Hilltop Urban Gardens and learned about sustaining an urban farm amid the pressures of encroaching development, Peine said.
The course is designed around food systems and the niches of small- versus large-scale farms, organic farming and food injustice.
Carson Lyness, a UPS junior , said she came in with the misconception that organic farmers are always more environmentally friendly than large-scale agribusiness.
“One isn’t necessarily better or worse,” Lyness said. “Each (farm) has similar goals of being sustainable with different ways of doing that.”
The students agreed the class has been an emotional and eye-opening experience so far, and the on-site learning is invaluable.
Listening to stories about the rise of the United Farm Workers labor union was among the most touching and upsetting parts of the class, said UPS senior Robin Hopkins.
“They work really hard and a lot of them would get injured as they were working and it seemed like the farms wanted to get rid of (the injured workers) as quickly as possible,” he said. “It’s hard to understand why they’d be treated that way.”
Tim Daly, a Willamette senior, said listening to a lecture pales in comparison to meeting real farm workers and visiting their land. Engaging with professors and students from the collaborative schools has been a fruitful learning experience, he said.
“Going to see the workers and the warehouse is directly confronting these things that you’re normally just reading about and it’s more profound,” Daly said.
Before leaving Tacoma, the students participated in a food challenge: They were given $10 and assigned the task of finding a healthy lunch in an area of Tacoma where grocery stores are sparse.
It was part of a larger lesson about the struggles of living in low-income areas with little access to supermarkets and affordable fresh produce.
“People take for granted having Safeways right down the street,” Daly said. “Not everyone has the same opportunities.”
The other two schools in the consortium are Lewis & Clark and Reed colleges, both in Portland. No students from those colleges enrolled in this summer’s course.
Bartanen said traveling from campus to campus is a model that likely won't work during the academic year, but the same type of immersive course could be offered during future summers.