By Sara Fullerton
For many students involved or interested in environmental sciences, Zena, a 305 acre Willamette-owned property just over 10 miles from campus, provides an outlet that actualizes academic content and empowers impactful hands-on work.
Zena holds value for all sorts of learning and experiences, from forestry to food justice and sustainability ,to gardening to environmental ethics. Zena Farm Club organizes events with a host of focuses, and directs its members to events of interest happening around the Willamette and larger Salem communities. These have ranged from beekeeping workshops to talks on food justice.
On Feb. 1, 2015, the university called for a ceasing of all agricultural pursuits at Zena until agreements were made on how best to uphold the “conservation easement” which had been written before Willamette purchased the land in 2008. The halt was intended to ensure Willamette’s long term access to Zena, but it came as a shock to many students and faculty who had no prior indication of problems with policy. Recently, agreements have been clarified and engagement at Zena is being reintroduced.
A “conservation easement” is a restriction that landowners can voluntarily place on their land to protect such features as productive land, ground and surface water and habitats for wildlife or historical sites. While Willamette owns the Zena property, activities on the land still must comply with the easement’s conditions.
When the university purchased Zena, a management plan was established to honor the easement. The easement’s language was vague when it came to agriculture, so the management plan went about clarifying which sorts of “development” needed restriction. As Abby Bernhard, co-president of Zena Farm Club, highlighted, complexity is inherent in these conversations. They demand answers to questions such as, “What land are you preserving? To what time in history? To benefit who?”
The “ethical actions” will look very different depending on whether we prioritize the restoration of the oak savanna, or more forest cover,or feeding people, as Bernhard explained.
The 2015 online petition to reinstate food production at Zena, which collected 501 signatures total, reveals passionate and thoughtful appeals from students, faculty and community members to keep farming intact. The overwhelming sentiment is that Zena is a key feature that makes Willamette distinctive. It has demonstrated the power of students, who, in the year before farming was suspended, had produced about $3,500 worth of food to be used by Bon Appetit catering services and the Bistro and donated to Marion Polk Food Share.
Bernhard envisions Zena as a place, “where we grow food but we also talk about the implications of our position in the food system.”
Connecting with the land naturally integrates the academic with the actual, which is a goal of a liberal arts education. Bernhard wants work at Zena to inspire students to ask, “What does it mean to have a relationship with the land?”
Rather than understanding the three years of restricted access at Zena as a mere setback, Bernhard also sees it as a “reset button,” where the community can rebuild, informed by the history of the club, and aware of what is important going forward.
It has also inspired students to seek out alternative ways to get involved with available land. Plots have been cultivated on campus outside of Matthews and Belknap, where a variety of veggies have grown. A greenhouse is being built behind Hatfield Library, whose roof is expected to go up this week. Bernhard also noted her excitement about the vast fertile land available in the greater Salem community, and the prospect of collaborating with existing farms and organizations.
Inclusivity is among Bernhard’s most valued elements for this year as she continues in her leadership role. Both she and co-president Ben Johnson say they are learning as they go, and welcome all who are interested, no matter their experience level with farming.
Zena Farm Club’s first meeting of the semester was spent on the Zena property, exploring the forest area on a hike, talking about plans for the upcoming months and harvesting bountiful arugula and kale from the greenhouse to take back home. If you want to get involved, weekly meetings will be starting up on Mondays from 6-7 p.m., location to be determined.