By: Mary K. Cantrell
Squash, eggplants, peppers, swiss chard, pineapple sage, apple mint, kale, basil, flowers, succulents, native plants, tomatoes, lettuce, apple, pear, fig, and loquat trees.
These plants, and many others, can be found at the student-run community gardens, the UT Concho Community Garden and Microfarm. Established in 2011 to give students an opportunity to practice urban farming and sustainability, the gardens help bring fresh produce to the UT community through on campus farm stands and donations. Microfarm even sells to UT dining halls. In addition to hosting weekly volunteer days at the gardens where they teach skills like composting and permaculture, Concho’s leaders also teach gardening to children ages 3-5 at the nearby UT Child Development Center once a week.
Concho rents out small raised beds for personal gardening to UT students and faculty while the Microfarm practices in-ground, larger scale farming in traditional rows. While they may operate a little differently, both are funded by the Green Fee Committee, a student run group that allocates funds for environmental service projects on campus. However, their success may be short lived as a new capital development plan, the East Campus Master Plan, is threatening to demolish or relocate the gardens to build new graduate student housing.
The plan was published in Spring 2015 but has yet to be finalized, even though construction is set to begin in January 2017. The existing plan makes no mention of Concho or Microfarm as community stakeholders. As a result, a group of students started a campaign, Students Empowered By Food, calling for preservation of the green space and the opening of a dialogue between UT administration and students regarding new capital development.
A petition started by the movement states,“The lack of communication, exclusion from decision-making, and years of false hope have created a climate of stress, frustration, and uncertainty for Concho’s and Microfarm’s participants.” It has collected over 1,500 signatures.
The gardens, located in East Campus off Manor Road, both employ three part-time student leaders and several interns. A long standing student volunteer at Concho, Jordan*, says the garden looks better than ever due to the recent completion of a massive restructuring.“We have carried out the renovation of the garden in its entirety over the past year and a half and that’s been the construction of 40 brand new raised bed plots, the removal of 1/4th of an acre of Bermuda grass,”Jordan says. “We have experienced so much growth and engagement with the community.”
Geography student Natalia Rojas claimed Plot #6 at Concho as her own just a few months ago. Lacking gardening experience, Rojas was initially unsure if she would find success in growing her own food. “I always thought I couldn’t garden,” Rojas says. “Then I saw how successful everything was.”
Rojas has since planted black eyes peas, tomato transplants, and different types of flowers with the help of the garden’s leaders. She says the 2-5 hours she spends at Concho every week help her de-stress.“I am able to experience the cleansing and the socializing aspect, it’s very good for your mental and physical health,” Rojas says.
With fruit trees that are just now producing, Jordan emphasizes the need for time and effort to make soil truly productive and cultivate biodiversity. The garden hosts not only a multitude of plant species but also various pollinators and wildlife. Jordan believes the project lacks institutional support from UT and the university should make efforts toward creating a permanent community garden.“It’s really hard to do all that work and know that it might not be there in the immediate future,” Jordan says. “It’s very frustrating to be part of this process and to be part of engaging the community in what sustainability is and promoting that on the ground and not having the same engagement up at the top.”
The garden’s stakeholders were finally considered by the housing team when they were invited to meet with the developers in January. They presented a strategy to integrate an edible food forest, community teaching kitchen, and farm-to-table restaurant in the area surrounding graduate housing. This week, the project leaders were finally notified by the East Campus Advisory Committee that the development plants are still in progress due to wide-ranging conflicts.
While the future of her plot is undetermined, Rojas continues to garden in order to stay connected with the earth. She argues that the garden offers a sanctuary for many students, allowing them to be empowered through producing their own produce. “I’m learning how to grow my own food,” Rojas says. “The fact that UT didn’t really consider that is kind of a stab in the back.”
Another stakeholder of the gardens, ex-Co Director of the Microfarm Stephanie Hamborsky, was recently fired from her job at the Campus Environmental Center for campaigning for Students Empowered by Food while using her title. Her letter of termination stated she was in violation of “UT Policy 5-2011 which details conflict of interest and conflict of commitment rules for UT employees.”
Hamborsky was the longest standing employee of the Microfarm, having been involved since 2013. She says she feels a distinct connection to the land, knows its history, and feels disheartened for being fired after the immense amount effort she put in.“I was doing my job and I was fighting to preserve my job and the place where I work,” Hamborsky says. “I care about this so much that I am campaigning and that is grounds for me getting fired.”
She plans to pursue legal counsel to determine whether her firing was rightful. Hamborsky relied financially on her job at the CEC and feels her firing could spark a dialogue about UT leveraging their position to prevent employees from campaigning politically.“Several people have said the Microfarm has flourished under my leadership,” Hamborsky says. “I have been doing my job well, this is not about whether or not I’m doing my job, it’s about them as an institution feeling threatened.”
As one of the leaders of Students Empowered by Food, Hamborsky says SEF acknowledges there is a need for graduate student housing, but they are fighting to preserve the gardens as-is. They want to hear from the campus developers why the gardens cannot be incorporated into the plan, if that is the case. SEF plans to continue to gain support in the form of letters from UT Professors, involvement with student government, and plan to hold a rally at the end of the month.
Jim Walker, UT’s Director of Sustainability, says despite campaign efforts, relocation of the gardens is likely due to the fact that graduate student housing has been deemed more critical by the university. “This is a hard position to be in, to be both the good guy and the bad guy, of kind of recognizing that sometimes there is a need to relocate these things to accommodate another use but at the same time wanting to grow the opportunity,” Walker says.
According to Walker, the gardens were never meant to be permanent and serve as temporary use, like the parking lots in East Campus. He says while UT values students access to community gardens, land availability is always an issue for a developing university in a developing city. “As other uses come along that the university feels the need to invest in we may feel the need to displace other uses that students are connected to and care about,” Walker says. “That’s unfortunately a trade off thing that happens in urban situations where you are gentrifying.”
In response to allegations that the university is greenwashing Walker says it is an insult to the number of sustainability projects the school engages in, adding UT has made a lot of progress since 2010, when there was almost no food awareness. “The fact that UT is gentrifying on land we already own instead of trying to acquire new land adjacent to campus is another factor I think the garden campaign is severely under considering,” Walker says.
He attends the East Campus Master Plan committee meetings, but is unable to give an exact date as to when the fate of the gardens will be announced. “We don’t know exactly how or where the gardens will be incorporated into the design for graduate student housing,” Walker says. “We hope to know over the next month of two.”
Although no public forums have been held concerning this issue, students are eager to express their opinions and Walker says it would be a good way to hear a diverse range of student voices beyond the campaign.
Campaigning students believe the community gardens are an integral resource as pertains to the stated goals of UT’s Office of Sustainability. They hope their efforts at engaging administration and the student body in dialogue surrounding new capital development projects expands beyond just the East Campus Master Plan issue. “The success of the university is determined by the satisfaction of its students and everyone’s upset about what’s happening,” Jordan says. “We don’t want anyone else to have to go through what we did.”
*name has been changed to protect identity