Our need for food, particularly if it’s fast, is a weighty cause of environmental problems. In fact, the World Wide Fund for Nature has said that “when practiced without care, farming represents the greatest threat to species and ecosystems.”
What needs to be done, according to Theri Niemier, is to teach everyone to eat smarter. Niemier is co-owner of Bertrand Farm in Niles, Michigan, whose “mission is to connect people to their food in a way that promotes healthy farming, healthy eating and earth stewardship.” There, she teaches young and old to grow their own food. This spring she also is teaching horticulture at Notre Dame, a class offered by the sustainability minor because of student demand. She appreciates the opportunity to instruct college students. “Since they’re just going to be moving into their buying habits,” she says, “it’s a good time to start understanding what their buying habits support or don’t support.”
The class filled up fast, partly due to the limited space in the greenhouse where the students grow plants they will eat as the semester moves on. There’s room for 24, and almost the same number of students ended up on the waiting list. “So sophomores and freshmen didn’t really get into the class, but we’re definitely hoping to continue offering it next spring,” says Rachel Novick, the director of the minor in sustainability, who had students visit and email her about the need for a horticulture class, one even offering to help with the syllabus. “It was really the first topic that I had been hearing very specifically from students that they felt there was a gap in the curriculum that was personally important to them.”
In the greenhouse, which is located on top of the Hank Family Center for Environmental Sciences, with a view of Notre Dame Stadium, students have broadcast seeds in the dirt that they prepared, mixing just the right proportions of sand, soil, peat, lime and compost. Worms, fed daily, produce more compost. “I love the hands-on stuff . . . being able to see the seeds sprout and then also getting your hands dirty with the worms and kind of messing up your first time,” says MacKenna Kelleher, a junior from Agoura Hills, California. “But it’s okay because the plants are resilient and they’re still going to pop up anyway because you didn’t forget to water them. That trial and error is nice because I find that lacking in the academic context. You don’t get to try and fail in your business courses.”
The information technology management major says farming might be a “side thing” when she graduates. “I have a passion for food, definitively, and will try to learn as much as I can about it whenever possible, and being a sustainability minor, I find that this class in particular is pertinent to something that I would be more than willing to do after college, because I would love to have my own little farm and then maybe produce a food product that is more sustainably grown and offer it to local restaurants and markets.”
Still, Kelleher expects to use the sustainability minor in her IT career. “I’m surprised there are not more business majors studying sustainability because not only is it a trend within consumers currently, people are asking for more sustainable products, more sustainably minded businesses and really trying to hold businesses to account to this greener standard, but businesses are still kind of lacking on that,” she says.
This type of student comment is part of why Notre Dame offers a minor, not a major, in sustainability. “I think that there’s a lot of value in sustainability being a minor,” says Novick, “because each of our students has to figure out ‘how does sustainability fit with whatever it is that I’m studying and how do I put the pieces together to address real world problems?’”
But it’s also about educating students to be responsible citizens, who, perhaps, will grow their own food in their gardens or go to local farmers markets rather than large grocery stores.
“Eaters need to take on the responsibility of this movement, because the small farmers cannot do it alone. It really will be the drive of the eaters, just like this class was the drive of the students,” Niemier says.
For farmers, climate change could mean new amounts of rainfall, new temperatures and new pests and diseases. The stakes are high. They are in the greenhouse as well, where it’s important to remove the lids at the right time and remember to water your plants if you want a salad later on.
“I’m going to make that salad to be the best gosh darn salad,” says Kelleher. “It could taste like actual dirt, but I think the fact that I helped grow something is so exciting, and it’s going to make it taste even better.”
Rasmus Schmidt Jorgensen is a student at the Danish School of Media and Journalism and an intern at this magazine.