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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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Feven Getachew
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Michael Lozada
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AltBreak groups fall for farms

For many Grinnellians, a week of fall break might be a chance to reunite with loved ones or catch up on much-needed sleep. But for others, the break opens up a window of possibility for service and community impact. This past week, many students participated in student-run programs such as Alternative Break to volunteer or get firsthand experience in fields they are otherwise not exposed to on campus.

Ellie Honan ’14, Chrissy Swartz ’14, Julia Daniels ’14, and Jill Wielgos ’16 show off their green thumbs at a local farm during their AltBreak. Photo contributed.
Ellie Honan ’14, Chrissy Swartz ’14, Julia Daniels ’14, and Jill Wielgos ’16 show off their green thumbs at a local farm during their AltBreak.
Photo contributed.

Jasmine Gerritsen and Madeline Howland, both ’16, were busily planning an AltBreak trip to Mark Twain National Forest, until they hit a major roadblock: the government shutdown.

“We tried calling them because they weren’t answering our emails. They answered the phone and basically said, ‘We can’t really be talking to you right now, because it’s kind of illegal,’” Gerritsen said.

Because communication was completely lost with the coordinator at the national park, Gerritsen and Howland were forced to find another option. Luckily, Howland had previous connections to a farm in Osceola, Wis., so within a small window of time, the group of seven students quickly adjusted their plans to instead volunteer with a six-household community group comprised of developmentally disabled adults living with community members.

“The goal of the community is to help each person live to their fullest potential … We wanted to teach our participants about what it’s like to live on a farm and work with other people,” Howland said.

Milking cows, working in the fields and helping out in the local community bakery were routine for participants. From harvesting to construction, the AltBreakers had their share of interesting experiences. According to Howland, a main project of the trip was beginning construction of a Moo-tel, a livestock housing unit.

“It’s this large greenhouse that you herd cows in over the winter,” Howland explained.

However, during free time, students were able to take advantage of the natural beauty of the terrain by exploring trails, going on midnight expeditions and locating hidden waterfalls.

“I feel like we made a really smooth transition into going from a national park into going to a farm by keeping some aspects of the national park in there. We got a lot of wilderness experience,” Gerritsen said.

As part of another separate Alternative Break trip, Grinnell Area Garden Club traveled to Iowa City and West Branch, Iowa to work on a much forgotten yet valuable resource: local farms and gardens.

Chrissy Swartz and Ellie Honan, both ’14, led seven students to two farms through a network called the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). The organization offers room and board to volunteers as part of building sustainable volunteer network.

Honan, an independent major in Sustainable Development, has worked on various farms, and says her motivation to lead the trip stems from her knowledge of the harmful agriculture practices that take place on larger scale farms—especially here in Iowa.

“[There are] a lot of problems with big agriculture. We ultimately decided on Iowa because it’s kind of the heart of the beast,” Honan said.

Grinnell student groups tend to be focused on non-profit organizations, and agriculture is perceived as a very for-profit sector. Because of this, Honan and Swartz were interested in looking at a social justice orientation within modern agriculture.

“A lot of times, for-profit institutions are just seen as very negative, but they can be socially responsible. Farming can be profitable, efficient, while still having a positive impact on the community,” Honan said.

According to Honan and Swartz, the concept of permaculture—an alternative and sustainable approach to farming that embraces the natural ecosystem—was a major focus of the trip and will play a significant role in the club’s future goals.

“What we learned with permaculture is its impact on community. It has a much bigger focus on small-scale production and building community,” Honan explained. “It’s both a matter of creating access for lower income people, but also getting people back in touch with growing food and where it comes from.”

The group’s interest in permaculture continues on campus, as the Garden Club hopes to start a permaculture site at Grinnell by planting a forest garden where the student garden currently is. In addition, Avi Pogel ’06, who is trained in permaculture, will be coming on the weekend of November 16-17 to hold a workshop and class on the topic.

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