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Learning the lay of the land

You wake up at 6:50 a.m. You’re a college student, so this seems like plenty of time to be ready for breakfast at 7. After breakfast, you have a meeting about what needs to be done on the farm. Has it rained recently? If not, you might need to water the garden. Are the peas ripe and ready for picking? Someone will need to feed the chickens, clean the coop, and collect eggs. You and your peers go out to take care of the farm essentials. After the work is done, you go into the classroom for a lecture on soil structures and what soils are good for growing which crops.

You go outside to explore what you’ve just learned. You dig around in the dirt; you test the acidity of the soil. All this is enough to work up an appetite: it’s time for lunch, after which, an area farmer gives a guest lecture about the process of becoming organically certified, sharing insights gleaned from his experiences.

A day at the Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Center differs from a day at one of the urban campuses in more than just start time.

“We can immerse students in the natural environment and give them related opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have at Loyola,” says Adam Schubel, a research associate in the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Policy. “We can help develop a conservation ethic and encourage lifestyles that function harmoniously with ecological systems.”

Students participating in the sustainable agriculture course this summer experience a mix of time in the classroom, practical application of skills, and reflection on larger implications.

“My main interest is agriculture, and this is an opportunity to get out there and do what I want to do,” says Alex Tuchman, a student in the course, who now works as an intern on the farm. “This is an invaluable experience.”

Students help care for the farm’s 60 chickens as well as the bees in the apiary. They plant, water, and harvest crops for Scott, the chef, to use in meals, and eventually they hope to offer farm products for sale. They’re building a shed and an updated chicken coop. Schubel, who heads up the farm programming at the campus, has students put together researched “livestock feasibility reports” about what types of animals would make good additions to the farm. They visit area farms to learn about different methods and approaches to farming. They observe the processes studied in biology and chemistry at Loyola’s urban campuses as they play out in nature.

“It’s helped me to understand the process,” says Donna Friedman, a senior biology major and a sustainable agriculture intern. “We plant, we cultivate, we harvest. It’s experiential learning at its dirtiest.”

Tuchman agrees. “That’s one of the most exciting aspects for me,” he says. “Being able to put in the study time, and then the next day wake up and practice what you just learned. You’re matching your intellect up with practicality and your ideals with what you can actually do.”

About the Retreat and Ecology Campus
Plans for the farm include investigating alternative sources of energy, exploring extended-season farming, and learning more about natural pest control. Ultimately the hope is for the LUREC farm to become a showcase of environmental sustainability.

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