Mark Bomford is the Director of Yale Farm and the Yale Sustainable Food Program, and former founding Director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. Bomford seeks to promote food literate leadership in his students and push the Yale Sustainable Food Program to the forefront of a global movement for food system change.
I would like for young folks who are wondering what they want to do in the world to see the essential work of food and farming to be something which is challenging, which has a bright future and which is full of possibility.
– Mark Bomford
How Yale Farm Works
Yale Farm lies just 15 minutes from Yale University’s main campus. Nicknamed “The Old Acre” the transformation of the land from a forgotten section of garden into a farm began in 2003. The farm is currently run by a small staff, led by Mark Bomford.
The farm educates Yale students through volunteer and co-op opportunities, as well as integration into regular course work. For the larger New Haven community, the farm hosts “Seed to Salad” learning programs and the fresh food produced by the farm is used for on-site events and sold at the local farmers market.
Mark notes that the Yale Farm is a novelty and example, not a scalable food source. “If we wanted to sustain all of the people at Yale we would need fifteen thousand farms like this”. The farm is a way to teach food literate values that our future decision makers must know in order to lead us to a more sustainable planet.
The Three Sisters
On Yale Farm, the lessons are layered. Mark Bomford shared an inspirational example of how engaging the lessons grown on the farm can be:
We are standing in front of some corn squash and bean plants. They don’t look like the uniform tidy rows that you will find in the middle of this country.
This is what is known as the Three Sisters. They were planted in partnership with the Native American Cultural Center.
It is a nice example of how plants can work together, so that you end up with a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
When we look back at how people were getting their food here before colonization, the record is sketchy. It is often filtered through settlers’ eyes as to what was going on. From what we can tell from archeological evidence, this entire area, originally occupied by the Quinnipiac, had all of the hallmarks of a sustainable food system. When you look at the archeology, the suggestion is that the Quinnipiac were able to get a full diet based on corn, and supplemented by diversity.
It was efficient in terms of work effort put in, in a way that was not matched by European farming at the time.
The corn provides the calories and sugar that we need to metabolize through a day. The beans are of course a great source of protein, and then the squash gives you a lot of interesting phytochemicals full of vitamins. You find it all together with these three. This kind of interplay isn’t just of nutritional benefit, but also agricultural.
If you look at the physiology of these plants, the space they take up and the things that they need, it is quite a symphonic association. They work together.
For example, corn needs nitrogen, and beans produce that. As a vine plant beans need something to crawl up, and corn provides a trellis of stock. Both corn and beans need weed protection, which the low growing squash plant provides with its large, low leaves.
It’s a wonderful symbiosis. However it is very easy, when reading about them for the first time to be awestruck by how these work together. To want to go out and buy seeds to plant yourself. It doesn’t work out the way it did a few hundred years ago, because the seeds have been bred differently, the soil has changed.
We’ve seen a lot of students jump in to try and replicate this Native American practice.
But it actually takes cooperation over many, many years. We planted these in partnership with an Abenaki seed keeper we worked with for many years alongside the Native American Cultural Center. Our students work with them as well, to re-embed all of that ceremony and respect for the seeds and soil.
This is not just about seeds and genetics and systems, it’s about culture.
Concrete Lessons of The Farm
Bomford’s eloquent explanation of The Three Sisters shows
The ‘concreteness’ of these lessons is an aspect of their value, especially for students often inundated by theories and hypotheticals:
It’s really nice to know that you are part of something bigger than yourself…
Especially in university with the abundance of abstractions theories and ideas and life in your head. It can be invigorating amidst vivid mental emotional life. Students get these feeling that they are just writing papers that nobody reads and you know that can bring you to a point where you lose sense of your place in the world, the world
is indifferent to your presence in it.
The farm provides full body engagement where you can actually see tangible results of your work.
Mark Bomford makes clear the importance of multi-disciplinary collaboration in every level of education, as the values of the farm can be taken with you for the rest of your day, and the rest of your life. Mark Bomford is featured in our upcoming documentary on the power of Taste for wellness and sustainability.