By Connor Kippe
Near the end of the back hallway at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, by the garage-door entry, there exists for staff and volunteers an unassuming piece of furniture called the “free table.” Not long after starting work this summer, in some downtime after lunch (having consumed a meal made with Campus Farm vegetables), several other interns and I stopped by the free table to sort through its contents. Among the assorted plants and donated books I noticed a bin labeled “Cultivating Community.” Inside the bin, along with a few other things, there appeared to be a pile of thank-you cards. Needing some to acknowledge the benefactors who made my internship possible, I reached to grab it. Upon picking it up, however, it fell apart! Or appeared to at least.

It was in part the mysterious messages on cards found at the free table
at Matthaei that inspired me to write this blog post.

To my surprise, it unfolded accordion-style to reveal what must have been someone’s art project in the past. The cards were connected, and pasted on them, descending down the length, were these words:

There is a connection between
And everything we do.
We are linked to nature
By what we buy, and what we eat
By what we drive, and how we live.
It is difficult to care about something
If we know little about it and we don’t see the role it plays
In our everyday life.
I took this home (it being free and all) and hung it on the wall so that each morning as I awake I am reminded of this wisdom. While the line “and what we eat” may seem to be most connected to my work as one of the Campus Farm student managers, some of the other lines have recently become more prescient to me.
It is difficult to care about something
If we know little about it and we don’t see the role it plays
In our everyday life.”
The ingredients in a prepared meal may come from
as many as five different countries outside the United States.
The culinary quality of the prepared meal is another subject
In the United States, much of the food system that provides our daily bread is unseen and even hidden from the consumer. Not sure where a lot of your food originates? If you’re trying to guess the provenance of a prepared meal, it could be from as many as five different countries outside the United States, according to a 2007 publication by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Struggling with describing how the food would be grown or who would grow it? Not surprising, with only 3.18 million U.S. farmers, according to the USDA 2012 agriculture census—barely 1% of the country’s population at the time. In fact, the total number of farmers declined 3% from the 2007 census, due in part to our predominantly industrialized form of agriculture.
So these few short lines on the folding cards are perfectly apt in describing our food systems. If you do not know how your food affects the earth, if you do not see the processes that create much of the food we consume, if you do not understand the distance that food has traveled to you, or the people that picked it, how can you be expected to have an informed opinion on any of it?
Urban agriculture is one possible solution on a local scale to many of these questions and problems. The USDA’s National Agricultural Library defines urban agriculture as an activity that “takes the form of backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space.” It’s one possible solution on a local scale to many of these questions and problems. Urban agriculture brings the food system to you. With the right preparation and planning, you can have a market garden in many different locations within a city. And it’s from U-M students’ efforts in urban agriculture on campus that the Cultivating Community Garden came to be.

The Campus Farm summer intern managers cleaning up the
Cultivating Community garden. L-R: Sydney Fuller,
Connor Kippe (author), Blake Mcwatters, and Haley Kerner.

The Cultivating Community garden was started in 2004 by an assemblage of students interested in food-system issues. The garden is located at the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning on Hill Street near central campus, where it still grows today. It began with the hope of inspiring change to make the university a closed-loop system through large-scale food production and vermicomposting. Occupying a street corner, it obviously would never be able to supply more than a meal or two for all the students who get their meals from MDining locations.  But it inspired the creation of its descendant, the Campus Farm, which is coming close to completing part of this goal as it will begin selling produce to MDining this fall, providing vegetables and leafy greens for many students.

As the Campus Farm grew, however, Cultivating Community began to wither. But not completely. In its place rose a new garden at East Quad student residence hall. The garden was used to grow food for students and even to teach a mini course. With the newfound popularity of a nearby garden, the Campus Farm in collaboration with the larger University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program, decided to bring back the Cultivating Community garden.

Throughout the rest of the summer, a different manager will help out at the Cultivating Community and East Quad campus gardens every week in conjunction with volunteers and a part-time intern. There are plans in the works for the tending of more land as the Campus Farm staff continues to grow. We and our future coworkers look forward to cultivating many things in these gardens such as peppers, kale, squash, and perhaps even a little bit of community.

Connor Kippe is a rising junior from Spring Lake, Mich. studying political science and Program in the Environment. He is working as a Campus Farm manager this summer, which ties in with his concentration in food and water policy. Outside of work and school he is devoted to eating fresh produce from the farm, training for endurance events, writing, and reading. Connor’s internship is made possible by the Porter Family Foundation.