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News and Media

Students Play Key Role at George Jones Farm & Nature Preserve

Jun. 25, 2013

Liv Combe

Aldrumesia Baker, left, and Marlee Blasenheim, both student interns at George Jones Farm, care for the plants in one of the farm's greenhouses.
Zach Christy

Summer is always a busy time on the George Jones Farm (GJF). Located a few miles east of campus, the 70 acres of land require many hands to plant and harvest organic vegetables for the City Fresh Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), organize permaculture workshops for the community, and maintain the algae levels in the irrigation ponds.

Students from Oberlin College and surrounding educational institutions — Oberlin High School, Baldwin Wallace University (BWU), and Lorain County Community College (LCCC), to name a few — play a key role in keeping the farm running, during the summer and throughout the academic year.

The GJF is not just a producer of organic produce, but also a nature preserve and education center named for former Professor Emeritus of Botany George Jones, who taught at Oberlin for almost four decades beginning in the 1920s.

The farmland is owned by Oberlin College and leased to the New Agrarian Center (NAC), a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization that works to grow a sustainable local food system in northeast Ohio. Until 2002, when the farm was relocated by Brad Masi ’93, the land was used for industrial farming; now, what used to be fields of genetically engineered soybeans is home to organic cultivation fields, greenhouses, an outdoor kitchen, prairie land, 200-year-old oak trees, research ponds, vernal wetlands, and a century-old farmhouse, to name a few.

This farmhouse is where farm manager Brad Melzer lives with his family. Since taking up the post in March earlier this year, Melzer has spent his time cleaning and organizing the farm, making long-term plans for the land, and figuring out ways to get more students involved — to “cross pollinate,” as he puts it, the farm and the college.

“The beautiful thing about GJF from the perspective of the college is that it’s a working farm, for one, but it also has protected wetland, a woodlot with old growth in it, a prairie — all these different zones and ecosystems that students can look at and study,” says Melzer. “It’s an organic farm, but also a living classroom.”

Students from Oberlin are already involved at the farm, with classes in environmental studies, biology, and ecology making frequent visits. Since the construction of the research wetlands in 2003, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies John Petersen has worked with several generations of Oberlin students to research biological diversity in the wetland cells.

“Students at Oberlin, and in environmental studies in particular, have a strong desire to merge what they are learning in the classroom with what they experience in the ‘real world’ outside the classroom,” says Petersen, who emphasizes the value of those experiences. “We learn by doing. Reality is messy and we need to learn to extract meaning and find truth in this messiness.”

It’s not only students of science that find inspiration — academic, activist, or otherwise — at GJF. Marlee Blaseheim ’13, a comparative American studies major, has been working at the farm since her sophomore year with a federal work study grant through the Bonner Center for Service and Learning.

“In comparative American studies classes, we talked about food systems and food justice,” says Blasenheim, who calls the farm her “second home away from campus.” When she had to complete an ethnographic study of a local nonprofit organization her junior year, it seemed like a no-brainer to write about the GJF.

“I was here 20 hours a week for my work study and research time, and it was so cool to be able to use that class to get a better sense of the place I was working and felt so committed to.”

The amount of student involvement has waxed and waned over the years, but the opportunities — not just for Oberlin College students, but also from the high school, LCCC, and BWU, where Melzer lectures in the sociology department — are still very much available. Throughout the years, GJF has hired students to complete specific projects; worked with Americorps members to run summer farm camps for children; hosted workers through the program Working on Organic Farms, where manual labor is traded for room and board; and held workshops with organization and participation by students.

One of Melzer’s goals for the farm is to continue the growth of the student involvement, eventually setting up an apprenticeship system so that students can learn and grow at the farm throughout their four years at Oberlin.

“I think particularly where Oberlin students fit in the best is that they can get themselves established here and become leaders. I won’t have to do every workshop myself; I can train students,” says Melzer, who would expand his administrative role once the farm is running the way he envisions. “I’m sure Marlee could teach high school and junior high school kids a whole bunch about this farm.”

The work is constant and the farm can always use the help, which Blasenheim hopes more students will find out about and “get the itch for.” Opportunities for growth aren’t just centered around academia and farm work; Blasenheim’s experience has taught her more than she imagined about advocacy, activism, and community organizing surrounding local food.

“I had a very romanticized idea of what working at a farm would be like before I started doing it,” says Blasenheim. “I think a lot of people do. They talk about local foods and how amazing they are, but come out and work for a day. You’re tired! It was a good reality check to have — if this is something people want to politically advocate for, there has to be a physical and emotional commitment to the work.”

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