Knox Students Get Hands-on Lessons in Urban Agriculture

Crops grown include radishes, kale, and spinach

November 15, 2011

Urban Agriculture class

By Laura Pochodylo ‘14

Knox College students in a newly developed course are learning about urban agriculture by growing their own fruits and vegetables on a plot of land on the edge of campus.

Knox Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman created and teaches the Urban Agriculture class, which is being offered during the fall and spring terms. Students spend part of their time in classroom lecture, and they also get hands-on experience by planting and tending crops.

On a recent tour of the students' garden, Schwartzman (in photo below, right) discussed the importance of including agriculture in a formal academic education, saying that it has a place in schools not traditionally viewed as agricultural schools. He believes this will make a difference in the future of farming.

"Farming has a pejorative connotation and isn't normally taught at a liberal arts institution," Schwartzman said. "We're looking to change that."Urban Agriculture class: Peter Schwartzman

So far, the students have planted and raised radishes, kale, spinach, garlic, and other vegetables.

Evan Lewitus, a junior from Annapolis, Maryland, is one of the students excited about the new course.

"Professor Schwartzman is trying to bring credibility to the movement of sustainable and urban agriculture, teach the methods and techniques that are empowering this movement, and supply the cafeteria with locally grown -- right in your backyard -- food," said Lewitus, who is majoring in environmental studies. "It is a perfect storm of education and activism."

Lewitus became interested in agriculture on both an "academic and activist level," after taking a course in food policy taught by Nicolaas Mink, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies. Lewitus believes the Urban Agriculture course will influence Knox to join the local food movement by growing more of its own food.

The local food movement also inspired Marie Anderson, a sophomore from Pleasant Hill, California, to enroll in the Urban Agriculture class. Each student in the course must spend about two hours a week on "the farm," as Schwartzman calls it. (Photo at top of page: Anderson displays an earthworm she found while digging up radishes.)

"It is exciting to see how what we learn in the classroom translates out in the field," Anderson said. "It is a very unique experience."

Lewitus also enjoys the time he spends tending the plants.

"Seeing the consequences of your actions, which stem directly from your knowledge of the subject, is extraordinarily fulfilling," he said. "(It is) one of the best ways to truly learn about and embrace (the course) material."

"The most surprising, inspiring, and uplifting moments are those in which after having planted seeds, you come back a week or two later and see rows of healthy, living crops," he added.

Urban Agriculture classStudents rotate through various duties, such as seeding, watering, weeding, and serving as agricultural historian. The agricultural historian's work contributes to a group research project that examines the links among farming, Knox College, and the Galesburg area, providing context to the students' farming.

Danika Hill, a sophomore environmental studies major from Naperville, Illinois, appreciates the added historical dimension.

"I was surprised by the agricultural roots of the college," Hill said. "The town was built around the school, so in its early years, Knox used to be 100% sustainable."

The content of the class is certainly unique on campus, but it is not out of place, she added. "The class feels very ‘Knox-y.' Some might think it is a strange class, because we're obviously not an agricultural school, but farming in general is so important in the Midwest that it is relevant to Knox, too," Hill said.

Lewitus said he highly recommends the class to anyone with even a "spark of interest."

"I love working outside, feeling the rich soil between your fingers," he said, "and at the end of the day having the knowledge that you have changed something real."