Teddy asks me, “These are paw-paw trees. Have you ever seen them before?”
“No, but they are super cool. Is it a kind of fruit?” I respond.
“Yes. Native to Kentucky. It grows like it is native to New York. Plant it and it grows. We are going to try to make some paw-paw ice cream.”
This is my introduction to Dilmun Hill Student Farm, a 12-acre student-run farm that has been practicing sustainable agriculture on Cornell University’s campus for more than a decade. Teddy Matel ’22, a plant sciences major, has been a farmer at Dilmun for a year and a half. In my first minute on the farm, I have already been introduced to a new fruit — and, apparently, a new way of making ice cream.
Teddy walks me up to the high tunnel, an unheated greenhouse that farmers, especially in the northeast, use to extend the growing season. On the way, we pass a stretch of wildflowers. They are all the colors of fall — red, orange and yellow. They are beautiful, of course, but I worry that they are taking up valuable real estate on this small farm. I ask Teddy, “Why aren’t you using the slope to plant crops?”
He smiles. “We use the slope. The wildflowers feed the bees that make the Bee Club honey. There is still something going on.”
We continue to walk up to the high tunnel, and Teddy tells me the backstory of the farm. In 1996, Dilmun Hill was given three acres of land no longer being used by Cornell Orchards. This land was contaminated with lead and arsenic from when the orchards sprayed these chemicals as pesticides. Nowadays, Dilmun Hill has transformed the land into something completely different, growing vegetables and fruits that did not before take root in the land.
We arrive at the high tunnel. He gives me a quick overview of the crops: “The high tunnel is pretty consistently beans, tomatoes and peppers. The market garden — over there — is a mixture of brassica (kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli) and cucurbits (winter squash, summer squash, cucumber). Down there are pumpkins and broccoli. To the right is the pioneer garden. Lots of salad greens, root vegetables, tomatoes, eggplants.”
Teddy picks a bean, just ripe, off the stalk. He hands it to me to taste, and I take a bite.
Most times, the food I eat leaves me not fully fulfilled. This is especially true when I gorge on hot dogs, popcorn and Cracker Jack at a Yankees game. However, this bean is sweet, satiating and satisfying — like it is nourishing me. I ask Teddy, “Why does this bean taste so different?”
Teddy nods his head and smiles. He tells me about Dr. William A. Albrecht, the late chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri, who learned about soil by studying cows. Albrecht knew that cows grazing from well-mineralized soils ate balanced diets. As Chef Dan Barber notes in his book The Third Plate, when these cows are kept in a barn and fed a predetermined grain ration, they never stopped eating, overindulging in a vain attempt to make up with sheer volume for what they weren’t getting in their food. Albrecht believed people would likewise stuff themselves for the same reason. Starved of nutrients, we will keep eating in the hope of attaining them.
Unfortunately, most of the food we eat comes from such farms. Fixtures of agribusiness such as 5,000-acre grain monocultures and bloated animal feedlots erode soils, shrink forests, kill grasslands, contribute to global warming and produce food that, while full in calories, is unsatisfying, unsustainable and devoid of true flavor.
Dilmun rebels against conventional agriculture by growing nature. Instead of planting solely one crop, the students plant dozens of crops — at once. All of these crops come together in harmony, and the result is nutrient-rich soil that gives us that delicious bean from the high tunnel. While conventional agriculture is extractive, Dilmun is restorative. Instead of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide, Dilmun relies on this crop diversity to produce their food. This is incredibly rare, and it reflects the growing agroecological movement within agriculture.
As we walk down to the market garden, a bee starts to crawl on Teddy’s neck. Admittedly, I am quite panicked. “Teddy, there is a bee on you. It’s going to sting you!”
“I think he is just showing me some love,” he tells me, as he looks down at the bee with more affection than he has shown me the whole afternoon.
At the market garden, I meet Kristen, a freshman at Cornell who participates in Dilmun Hill’s Work-for-Share, a program in which students come and farm five hours a week all fall. As compensation for their work, they get their own share of produce and admission to Dilmun’s concerts and parties. This is a very popular program, and it has gotten bigger over the past few years. Kristen decided to join the program because she enjoys being outside and being in nature. She tells me, “I like planting — it feels like you are giving back.”
Before I leave, Teddy leads me to the barn, and we stand over a huge bucket of fresh honey. He hands me a fork, and I run it through the creamy, golden nectar. I have to admit: It is the sweetest, most fulfilling honey I have ever tasted.
My experience at Dilmun Hill gave me an inside look at agriculture. When done right, it produces delicious and wholesome food, creates a sustainable and vibrant ecosystem and harmonizes the farmer with the world. In this way, Dilmun Hill offers a great opportunity to get outdoors, spend quality time with friends, connect with the land and learn more about the environment. Take these final words with you: “All value inherently comes from the land. If we change the way we grow things, we will change the way we eat things. And that’s not just a public health and nutrition thing — it is a spiritual thing, too.”
Jack Waxman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com. Dig In runs every other week this semester.