Student Initiatives in Sustainable Agriculture

David Rubin

(Photo by Oren Jakobson)

Seniors Sophie Patterson and Oren Jakobson have spent the better part of a year organizing the first-ever SISA — Student Initiatives in Sustainable Agriculture — conference. The Lawrentian sat down with these dedicated SLUG members for a discussion about the goals of the SISA conference and the logistical challenges involved in the planning of such a large event.

DR: What was the inspiration for the SISA conference? When did the two of you begin planning?

OJ: Well, we’re in the garden, and Sophie says she has this idea, and I was like “yeah, let’s do that.”

SP: I think there is a disconnect between students at different universities, even though they’re trying to do the same thing. There has never really been a forum for [student-led community agriculture], even at events like the MOSES — Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service — conference.

OJ: Conferences like MOSES and the Wisconsin Local Food Summit focus on sustainable agriculture, but… they’re not quite geared toward us [as students].

SP: It’s for people who aren’t under the same institutional restrictions. The people giving the presentations are well-established farmers.

OJ: For me, I saw that as we had discussions with student groups — sometimes, at MOSES, quite a few student groups — there was just not enough time, and nothing incredibly fruitful came out of [those discussions.] The students at the UW-Madison student farm have been working for years, trying to create a networking website for the student farms in the Midwest to share information. It hasn’t worked, people haven’t bought into it. I think one of the main reasons is that the only contact is a single hour every year at MOSES.

We’re going to have the same discussion here, but it is hopefully going to be more fruitful. Instead of [discussing] presentations about agriculture topics geared toward established farmers producing on a commercial level — not community agriculture — I really wanted something where it would be focused just on student farms and gardens, on the types of projects and ideas that are unique to student farms and gardens. You know, our successes and failures, etc. And [we wanted] focused discussions — at SISA, we won’t have such a limited amount of time, we’ll have gotten past the niceties of getting to know each other, where we’re from, etc. Hopefully that will lead to a more fruitful discussion.

DR: What will the weekend’s events look like?

SP: We’re going to have presentation sessions on a wide range of topics, from starting a student farm and integrating it into academic life, to… having pigs on your campus! [These sessions] will be applicable to people and schools whose gardens are in different stages. These presentations will be given by those students who are leaders at those schools that are leaders in this field, i.e., Michigan State University, UW-Madison, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Olaf, etc.

We will also be screening a documentary about young farmers, “The Greenhorns.” And we’ll have live music! Party. Our band, Grandkids, is coming up from Illinois.

DR: On to logistics. Where are these students coming from? And where are they going to be housed?

SP & OJ: There are 134 students coming from outside of Lawrence, representing 31 colleges and universities — including us, that is — in seven states. Right now we’re looking at roughly 40 Lawrence students, but there will likely be more.

SP: They’re being hosted in group houses — Co-op, SLUG, Greenfire, ORC — off-campus houses, student rooms, etc. And we’re providing them breakfast too! Because we’re just that nice.

DR: Is ORC… structurally sound for such an event?

OJ: Yes.

DR: What do you hope will be some of the lasting effects of this conference? Do you hope to see it become a regular event at Lawrence?.

SP: We’re actually going to have a [formal] discussion on that at the conference, “SISA Conference Continuation and Student Farm Networking.” We’ve been talking about how it would be cool if it was put on at a different school every year and organized by different people.

OJ: Every organization that I know about that puts on events like this — the MOSES conference [for example] — treats them as fundraisers. But right now we’re doing this in the complete opposite way. The conference is the purpose, and we’re not making any money.

DR: Along those lines, what financial aid did you receive in order to make this a reality?

OJ: We received the 1968 Peace and Social Activism grant, the 1965 Student Activities grant and the Environmental Initiatives Grant. We also received funds from LUCC, the Committee on Diversity Affairs, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the environmental studies department.

DR: What were some of the logistical problems that you faced? Planning a conference doesn’t sound like an easy task.

SP: Finding the people was pretty hard. Way too many emails! If they didn’t have websites, or weren’t responding, we had to email the student activities coordinator in order to find a professor, in order to find a student, etc. We also had to contact [keynote speaker] Will Allen, and we had to get movie rights.

OJ: The most difficult part was getting people to say that they would come and present, come and give a speech, give us permission to use their film, etc.

SP: After that, it was like, everyone wants to come! Every day, we’d be like, “10 new people, yeah!”

OJ: We learned that the power of deadlines is huge. We’d be contacting these people —

SP: For months!

OJ: Saying, “we need this information from you, please, we need you to commit to this, we can pay for everything, we really want you to present…” and we got nothing back. Again and again and again, calling, calling, calling. And then finally, we just said, “We need a commitment by this Friday.”

SP: And then the next day, or within a few hours, we would get an email back, saying who they were, what they were planning on doing, etc.

DR: To Lawrence students who didn’t register…?

OJ: They need to.

If they’re reading this and saying, “Oh, I want to go to this tomorrow morning,” then they should go to a computer and register!

Interested in attending the SISA conference? Check out the website, which contains a full schedule and information about – last minute! — student registration:

Here is an overview of the big events framing a weekend of presentations, discussions, and workshops.

Saturday, April 2:

1:30 – 3:00 p.m. : Keynote Speaker: Will Allen of Growing Power, Inc. – Esch Studio, WCC

Will Allen is the co-founder and C.E.O. of Growing Power, Inc., a nonprofit organization devoted to the development of healthy, sustainable “community food systems.” Based in Milwaukee, Growing Power is an international leader in urban farming. Allen was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008, and in 2010 was included in the “TIME 100 World’s Most Influential People.”

5:00 – 7:00 p.m. : “The Greenhorns” documentary film screening – Cinema, WCC

“The Greenhorns” is an award-winning documentary film about young farmers in the United States — created by the nonprofit organization of the same name, which is dedicated to bringing about agricultural reform and recruiting a new generation of farmers.

9:00 p.m. – 1:00 a.m. : MUSIC! – Esch Studio, WCC

Featuring Grandkids, a four-piece “humblecore” group from Urbana, Ill. With The Dirtbags, Silk Stocking Sisters and, of course, Love Constellation and the Stars