New certificate program in geography integrates classroom with field-based learning
As sunshine melted another spring blanket of snow, grass sprouted in clumps, goats milled in pens and a stream trickled. A group of CU Denver students donned mud boots to check on the animals and crops at this urban farm in the suburbs.
Student Susanna Diller said the first part of the Urban Food and Agriculture class focused on global approaches to sustainable food production. The second part, she said, explores “the local aspect, and coming out here ties it all together.”
“Out here” is the 13-acre Five Fridges Farm, which is a field research station in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences (GES). It’s also the home of Amanda Weaver, a geography instructor and coordinator of the new four-class certificate in Food Systems and Sustainable Urban Agriculture. The farm is integrated into the GES curriculum and research programs, thanks to a 2011 memorandum of understanding.
Weaver’s passion to integrate sustainable farming with urban areas led her to buy the farm, which is a conservation easement that’s been donated to Colorado Open Lands, a land conservation group. The farm was first settled by Ernestine and Walt Williams in the early 20th century.
While the site offers the assortment of chores that busy any farmer, it also comes with the challenges — zoning restrictions, residential neighbors, water access, etc. — of being smack in the middle of an urban area.
Weaver, a city dweller-turned-farm steward, is fascinated by the interaction between local farming and suburbanization. Apartment complexes rise on both sides of her farm, which is anchored by a weathered farmhouse and cluster of outbuildings. “Food has been grown close to cities for thousands of years,” Weaver said. “Now we’re getting to the point of making critical decisions of either having water for the cities or water for food production. I’m trying to educate our students on what that means.”
Sarah Russell, who is a second-year masters student in social science focused on urban agriculture, said she likes the hands-on aspects of the farm. “You can see the vegetables being grown and find out where they’re being sold,” she said. “We’re learning how sustainable a farm can be and how self-sustaining a person who does the farming can be.”
Caitlin Reusch, a senior undergraduate in geography, said she is fascinated by the different aspects of local and global agricultural production. The neighborhood farm, with its grapevines, vegetables and livestock, including bees, ducks and chickens, brings those theoretic aspects to life. “Also, a personal goal of mine is to work with goats and get into shearing and quilting, so this is great for that,” Reusch said.
Weaver is also a member of the Wheat Ridge Planning Commission. She is re-imagining the 100-year-old farm as a site for practicing — through partnerships, leases and cooperative animal share programs — sustainable urban agriculture in the 21st century. “I want to see young people or first-generation farmers try to create viable models for urban farming,” she said. “… To me, this creates a model for other landowners to lease land for local food production. We haven’t really had to do that before.”
Weaver noted that the certificate also makes the students more employable in planning departments. Cities are increasingly dealing with urban agriculture issues — such as residents who want to raise chickens, keep bees or collect their own rainwater — intersecting with strategic growth plans.
Essentially, Five Fridges Farm (a reference to refrigeration needs for on-site milking) is set up to be a research site allowing students and community members to study a range of urban-agriculture interfaces, Weaver said. The site offers a unique opportunity to engage students in long-term study of sustainable agriculture as well as perform research in the GES areas of Environmental Science, Environmental Studies and Urban Studies.
“I feel this is a community asset,” she said. “We should have community members and students out here because it keeps the legacy of the farm going.”
(Photo at top: Geography instructor Amanda Weaver pets a goat at Five Fridges Farm in Wheat Ridge.)