Veronica McGowan, Instructional Coach, Christina Serkowski, English Teacher, and Karen Sherwood, History Teacher
What does it take to change the world? This question naturally emerged from students taking the first semester’s Environmental Ethics and Advocacy course that explored the complexity and socio-technical nature of contemporary environmental problems. During the fall quarter, students studied the cultural underpinnings of our relationship with the natural world, examined ethical frameworks for envisioning this relationship, and created systems diagrams that linked seemingly disparate variables to each other. In particular, students brought to the surface the deep connections between food systems, policy, climate change, and public health and found that 40% of fossil fuel use is devoted to growing and moving food around in our industrial agricultural system. Using systems models, students explored which actions were necessary for creating social and environmental change in their own communities.
Dr. Wheat, the owner of SkyRoot Farm and lecturer at the University of Washington, is asking this same question, and is providing pathways for students to look for answers through coursework and real-world experiences in urban agriculture. During the first week of intensives, students had the opportunity to visit SkyRoot Farm and learn from Dr. Wheat about sustainable food production. Wheat described how restoring soil health and increasing biodiversity on the farm in ways that mimicked natural ecosystem processes results in healthier crops and higher productivity. As students toured the farm, they counted grass species in the grazing pasture (there are six!), walked the orchard’s hand-built switchbacks to observe the flow of rainwater, met the playful goats, and had the opportunity to talk with Wheat in depth about sustainability on a local and global scale.
While we checked out the greenhouse that Wheat built by hand, students watched as he pulled a carrot fresh from the ground and ate it on the spot, without washing or peeling it. It was a revelation for students to learn that this is the healthier way to eat our vegetables – and consume the full vitamin and mineral content that our bodies need – as long as that carrot has been grown in healthy soil not treated by toxic chemicals or pesticides. It was yet another example for students of how our culture has framed the way we see and understand everything, and that the fundamental part of the work needed for change is recognizing when the cultural framework has led us astray from what is healthy.
In one of our large group discussions, students asked Wheat for thoughts on the most important factor for living sustainably. After some thought, Wheat answered, “Time.” Time to build community, time to make and grow food at home, time to know our farmers, time to read more and write, and time to invest in change. Appropriately, the Environmental Ethics and advocacy class concluded with time for students to individually explore their own environmental ethics questions through a final mentored advocacy experience in partnership with community members and Seattle-area organizations. We all left our time at SkyRoot with a greater appreciation for the role of small farms in supporting ecosystem and public health, and the need to support small farmers in our own communities.
SkyRoot Farm is an organic,20-acre integrated animal and vegetable farm on south Whidbey Island that serves the NE Seattle community through their annual community supported agriculture (CSA) program. To learn more about the farm and CSA, you can visit their website.