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Campus farms have the untapped potential to be living-learning laboratories for building skills in leadership & sustainable food practices.



With the growing impacts of climate change and threats to a cheap and abundant supply of energy, the need to foster resiliency and adaptation at the local scale is increasingly pertinent. Colleges and universities provide a ready-made platform for students and communities to pre-familiarize themselves with future alternative scenarios and experiment with small-scale adaptations. The campus farm in particular is perfectly poised for this role.  The unifying nature of food serves as a gateway to building networks for community engagement. This proposal envisions a campus farm as a living-learning laboratory, a test kitchen for “adaptive muddling” (DeYoung and Kaplan, 2012). Through this process, campus farms may use small experiments to derive varied possible solutions that are participatory and place-based.

What actions do you propose?


We propose that increasing political and fiscal support go to the establishment of campus farms at colleges and universities across the world.  While many places of higher education have already taken this initiative on their own accord, campus farms remain few and far between, and -- in the US at least -- are often limited solely to land-grant universities.  We envision institutions of higher education where campus farms are as commonplace as student unions, dormitories, and libraries.  Like these mainstays of the collegiate experience,  the campus farm has great potential to serve as a critical place for gathering, sharing food and ideas, and co-creating knowledge.  The campus farm is unique, however, in its ability to do these things while addressing one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: how to build a sustainable food system in an increasingly changing world.  We posit that this challenge can not and will not be answered until farms reach a critical mass at colleges and universities across the world.

With increased support from the political, public, business, and educational sectors, campus farms can be strategically positioned as living-learning laboratories for building essential skills in leadership, communication, and sustainable food practices -- skills necessary for surviving and thriving in the 21st century.  With this support, these farms can be envisioned and designed as collaborative spaces that will provide a supportive environment for the community to explore adaptive local solutions to global food issues  This design includes infrastructural, physical components, as well as non-material, educational and communicative components.  The infrastructure might include interactive demonstration plots of various sustainable farming and gardening techniques, an outdoor kitchen area and oven for teaching food preparation skills as well as for preparing meals for gatherings, or seating, shelter, and technology for place-based classrooms, to name but a few.  The educational and communicative components might include adaptive educational signage and curricula, incorporating a wide array of experiential learning opportunities designed to nurture a new generation of food citizens. Through these educational and engagement opportunities, community members will develop the requisite skills to meet today’s sustainability challenges, deriving a variety of solutions that are place-based and participatory

In sum, campus farms have the heretofore unrealized potential to provide exploratory and experimental spaces for both students and the wider community, advancing the mission of higher education institutions as proving grounds for interdisciplinary, cutting edge ideas and training facilities for tomorrow’s leaders. In this way, campus farms may serve as multifunctional laboratory spaces, transcending traditional notions of agriculture, education, and research. 

Who will take these actions?


Primarily what is needed is support from upper-level administrators of higher education institutions, though this will often be born out of the support of students, alumni, donors, tax-payers and political leaders.  Securing this support is often the first step, though it can be preceded by or done in tandem with the physical establishment of a campus farm by impassioned and forward-thinking leaders.  

In collaboration with faculty, staff, students, and community members, these farms will offer an adaptive curriculum incorporating diverse, experiential learning opportunities that nurture a new generation of agricultural citizens that span many sectors.  The leaders “grown” on these campus farms will bridge traditional academic disciplines and cultivate systems thinking with food as the great equalizer.

Where will these actions be taken?

These actions will be taken at places of higher education across the world -- including not just land-grant universities, but public and private colleges and universities of all sizes and specialities.

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

Using the University of Michigan Campus Farm as representative of what’s possible, emission reductions can be estimated. By serving locally, the farm offsets emissions associated with the processing & transport of conventional food. Produce travels 1500 mi on avg to reach a Midwest table. Assuming light-duty truck transport at 19.4 mpg, over 1,510 lbs of CO2 (458 g CO2/mi * 0.0022 lb/g * 1500 mi) is offset from just 1 trip. On avg, 7.3 units of fossil energy are consumed for every unit of food energy produced - & 80% of fossil fuels in the U.S. food system go into packaging, processing, & transport - so just 1.46 units (7.3 * 0.2) are attributed to a local farm. With minimal equipment, use of fossil energy is much lower. Even with a 1:1 ratio of fossil energy in to food energy out, our farm offsets over 540 lbs of CO2 in 1 yr of production (6.3 kcal fossil energy/1 kcal food energy * 1 gal gas/31478 kcal fossil energy * 19.6 lb CO2/gal gas * 200 kcal/lb produce * 700 pounds produce).

What are other key benefits?

In addition to growing localized sustainable food systems, this proposal has the multiplicative effects of growing sustainable leaders and communities.  The campus farm as an outdoor classroom, a living learning laboratory, offers experiential education that not only grows food, but also a community of learners and doers.  These leaders will shape food policy, the agricultural industry, and the very face of the planet for the foreseeable future.

What are the proposal’s costs?

The costs of this proposal will depend on the scale each institution is able and willing to commit to, as well as the price of resources and services available to each individual institution.  That said, it is very difficult to estimate what it might cost the “average” institution, though based on existing sustainable farming operations at colleges and universities in the US, one can expect that it would be on the order of a few thousand dollars to establish a farm and tens of thousands of dollars to build it to scale and make it both financially and environmentally sustainable.

Time line

As shown last year at the University of Michigan, with the leadership of a handful of impassioned students and faculty, a campus farm can be established in the period of one year.  In one year, students were able to secure resources to grow the farm from a 20x30 plot to a 2-acre space.  In just one growing season, over 700 lbs of produce was grown with the support of over 700 hours of volunteer hours from students and community members.  While this took the steadfast dedication of all involved, there was nothing unique about the UM Campus Farm's situation in terms of fiscal or political support.

Related proposals


"Establish campus farms as living-learning labs for a sustainable food system" (in Local Solutions)



De Young R. and S. Kaplan (2012). Adaptive muddling. In R. De Young and T. Princen [Eds.]The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. (Pp. 287-298) Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

EPA (2013) "Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2012"

Heller, Keoleian (2000) Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System, The University of Michigan - Center for Sustainable Systems, Ann Arbor, MI, 1-60, CSS00-04.

Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (2001) “Food, fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions."