The idea started in the “Food Culture and History” course taught by Alice Julier, PhD, Program Director and Associate Professor in the Master of Arts Food Studies program in Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability & Environment.
“As part of the course, students are assigned a region of the world, and they research the cuisine and culinary practices of a part of it,” says Alice. “What I’ve found over the years is that they need to talk about the ingredients that go into those cuisines. Imagine places that consume a lot of rice, potatoes, corn—those staple crops define cuisines. So now, we focus on the agriculture as much as the culture.”
Thus was the Global Food Garden born. It’s a fenced-in 26,205 sq. feet, right by the Lodge, north of the old glass greenhouse. The Garden’s current caretaker, Jenalee Schenk, is a two-time Chatham alumna, having graduated in 2010 with a BA in Professional Communication and Visual Arts, and in 2012 as a member of the first cohort of the Master of Arts in Food Studies program.
Latin American garden
• Purple and pink Peruvian potatoes
• Ten varieties of chiles
• Mexican midget tomatoes
• Mexican sunflowers
• Epazote (an herb that aids digestion)
• Cape gooseberries, also known as ground cherries
“One of our students from Guatemala wanted to try a traditional meso-American agro-forestry crop design,” says John R. Taylor, PhD, assistant professor of Sustainable Agroecology. “We had been looking for a place to plant corn, so we decided to do it as a traditional ‘three sisters garden’ from Native American culture.” The three sisters are corn, beans, and squash. Corn shades the beans and provides a pole for their vines to climb. Beans provide nitrogen for the corn and help to stabilize the plants; and the squash provides a heavily shaded ground cover to prevent soil moisture from evaporating.
John walks me through other field experiments that the students have set up. “It looks like the Brandywine tomatoes are susceptible to early blight,” he says. “But that’s farming, right? You’re constantly experimenting.” Students are evaluating not only eight different varieties of tomatoes, but also methods of spacing them—double vs. single row, high density, vs. lower density.
Teff is a traditional Ethiopian grain crop with tiny little seeds, and right now it looks like elegant, long, brown fronds taking a sweeping bow. “It was really beautiful until it rained really hard and all fell over,” laughs John. Also featured in the Ethiopian garden:
• Collard greens
• Ethiopian ground pepper
• Herbs and spices including cilantro and black cumin
• An Abyssinian red banana that came from e-bay. “It doesn’t really have an edible banana, and is mostly used for fiber,” he says. “But during times of food shortage, you can eat the interior of the stem. It’s edible-ish.”
“We have some Thai crops, some Chinese crops,” says John. “A lot of what we’re doing here is new to us. For instance, this pink Thai tomato looks like it’s starting to ripen, but I’m not really sure when it’s ripe.”
• Adzuki beans
• Asian varieties of eggplants
• Different varieties of peppers
• Thai basil
• Bunching onions
• Thai baby watermelons. “I was trying to get them to grow up this trellis, but they seem to just want to trail. Maybe they’ll help suppress some of the weeds,” says John.
The ranges of varieties are part of the research component of the Global Food Garden. “We’re looking at not only interspecies but also intraspecies crop variety,” says John. “For example, here we’re comparing two varieties of cabbage – Chinese and Napa. We’re looking at criteria like weight, flavor, and disease/insect resistance. These Napa cabbage are like little insect motels. The leaves are loose enough that they just get in there. They’re beautiful, but not very insect resistant,” he laughs.
The Global Food Garden is also hosting three different verities of rice – a Japanese sushi variety, a variety called Carolina Gold that was brought by enslaved people to the southern US in 1700s, and Russian variety called Duborskian. “Rice doesn’t need to be grown in a paddy, and we’re trying to see if we can propagate it here,” says Alice. “We are a world of immigrants, and we migrate.”
What are the plans for the crops grown in the Global Food Garden? “In the fall, we’ll use some of the crops in different classes, for example, in a fermentation course. I’ll probably focus on medicinal herbs,” says Alice. Some of the plants will be moved into the greenhouse. In tropical climates, crops such as tomatoes are perennials; not so here.
But that comes later. “The first thing we’re going to do is have a feast when the new students get here,” says Alice. “It’s one of the ways we share what we’re doing with our new students and with our returning students. Take everything out of the garden and have a fantastic party.”
Chatham’s Master of Arts in Food Studies in the Falk School of Sustainability emphasizes a holistic approach to food systems, from agriculture and food production to cuisines and consumption, providing intellectual and practical experience from field to table.