Farm’s Harvest Cultivates Greater Fruits
The Saint Mary’s Sustainable Farm
By Elyse Paul ’20
Food brings people together. It gathers us at a shared table and invites others in. This fall, Saint Mary’s College experienced firsthand the power of what producing and sharing food can do for the community with the completion of the Sustainable Farm’s first market season. Situated on the northern edge of campus, the farm is bearing fruit, becoming a growing space that welcomes, gathers, and feeds the College and its neighbors.
The fruits of the farm’s labor can be credited to a joint commitment to sustainability and service to a vision. Rooted in Catholic tradition and a part of the Mission Division’s outreach efforts, the five-acre Sustainable Farm was unveiled in 2020. Since its inception, the project has made significant strides in fighting food insecurity, caring for the environment, educating students, and even cultivating new relationships. “The farm, by its very nature, is a tangible way to point to the College’s commitment to Laudato Si’,” says Vice President for Mission Julianne Wallace, referring to Pope Francis’ encyclical which articulates the specific imperative of caring for creation through environmental stewardship, and more broadly of honoring the dignity of both the Earth and those around us. According to Wallace, what has been essential to the farm’s initial success is “the institutional commitment to growing the farm. We’ve taken our lead from President Conboy who made sure the farm was part of the strategic plan and part of our commitment to Laudato Si’.”
While the College’s leadership was instrumental to the growth of the farm over the past several years, some of the foundational seeds were planted by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Chris Cobb, associate professor of English and environmental studies, and educational director of the Sustainable Farm, recalls the trials the farm faced in its earliest days and how the Sisters provided unwavering spiritual and financial support. If not for the work of the entire College community, the farm would be unable to fulfill its mission. Today, a bountiful harvest has been gathered, and rather than selling the produce at market rate, the farm can donate food to local nonprofits and the campus community because of internal support. This shared purpose has allowed for a shift in the battle lines around the initiative: from fighting to keep the farm financially stable to fighting to solve food insecurity.
The farm, by its very nature, is a tangible way to point to the College’s commitment to Laudato Si’.– Julianne Wallace, vice president for mission
The farm’s place in the strategic plan Revere and Revise sheds light on the College’s desire to be a leader in efforts of sustainability and environmental stewardship. Saint Mary’s is committed to achieving a culture that emphasizes the importance of human dignity. The farm concerns itself not only with caring for the Earth but also with caring for others. The produce grown on Saint Mary’s soil is shared and given to those in need through a partnership with For the Good, a local nonprofit serving the greater South Bend community.
The produce harvested on Thursday mornings is transported straight from campus to a local church where it is shared with around 30 families served by For The Good at no cost. “The destination for the food from the farm is first and foremost addressing food security needs in the community,” Cobb says. “There’s an idea in Catholic social teaching that there should be a preferential option for the poor. I hear that phrase a lot. I don’t see it authentically enacted very often.” Saint Mary’s is thinking first about the needs of the most vulnerable in our community. Allowing families to come and choose their own produce is dignifying. The choice-model allows individuals to select appropriate foods they are familiar with to meet their needs, so they can confidently cook and enjoy later. Any leftovers from the farm’s harvest are distributed to a soup kitchen, so nothing is wasted. A key priority of the farm is to use food intentionally to minister to people who should have access to affordable, healthy, nutritious, and sustainably grown produce—and that means everyone.
The destination for the food from the farm is first and foremost addressing food security needs in the community.– Professor Chris Cobb, Education director of the sustainable farm
In order to get to this point, the Sustainable Farm’s journey came with unexpected challenges, but when one door closed, another always opened. “We’ve always come upon moments where we have a plan, we move forward, then we meet an obstacle. Unexpectedly, we found another way to do it. An opportunity would emerge,” Cobb says. Time and time again, the Sustainable Farm exceeded expectations. “We’ve never known how we’re going to accomplish what it is that we set out to do. But we’ve found ways or doors open, and people have been supportive and innovative at just the right moment.”
Growing produce does not happen overnight. The endeavor must establish roots to become sustainable. Matthew Insley, the farm’s manager, is part of the Saint Mary’s team leading the project. His background combines a master of divinity degree with a passion for farming and educating. Insley’s faith, leadership, devotion, and charisma serve to rally students, staff, and faculty alike to join in the farm’s mission. “Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of my life is my Christian faith and discipleship,” shares Insley. “I love feeding people. I love to cook, so I saw this as an opportunity to combine my passion with the needs of the world. I believe if you want to follow Christ, you need to be concerned with the stewardship of creation.”
There are no special qualifications to get your hands dirty working on the farm, and that is part of what attracts people to it. The place itself serves as an intersection where individuals might cross paths who wouldn’t have otherwise. On weekly harvest days, Maria Gonzalez-Diaz, the College’s sustainability coordinator, sees everyone from tenured faculty members to the children of colleagues volunteer there. Student volunteers Mary O’Connell ’26 and Makayla Hernandez ’25 had little experience on a farm before they spent time on-site tending to the plants and animals. “We’ve become like family,” says Hernandez as she recalls rounding up unruly chickens, pulling weeds, planting garlic bulbs, and bailing water with peers. O’Connell and Hernandez agreed they feel a sense of joy for what they’ve accomplished on the farm. The experience of working together as part of a community forms relationships and builds a sense of shared achievement.
The farmwork focuses not just on growing and harvesting crops: it also creates a renewed sense of belonging and connection. On Thursdays, a group of devoted volunteers, from building services crew members to College faculty, harvest together. On Fridays, a weekly campus farmer’s market is held under a small tent near the athletic fields. The market attracts eager droves as produce is sold for a free-will donation. The display of seasonal food ranges from beets to basil, Swiss chard to spinach, and eggs to freshly cut flowers.“People get excited about seeing this beautiful harvest,” Insley says. They also are invited to spend time with each other and share in the work that it takes to have the farm bear fruit. Having established its popularity, the market, under the welcoming shade of a canopy tent, is a gathering place. “People come out and pick up food, they’ll linger, they have conversations and share recipes,” says Cobb. “It’s a place where people are seeing each other and sometimes they’re seeing people who they might not necessarily interact with. It’s a crossroads for all different parts of our community to form an organic connection.” Gonzalez-Diaz marvels equally at the steadfast generosity demonstrated by the Saint Mary’s community every week as they give of their time, talent, and treasure. The harvest continues to expand in both its footprint and its accessibility: the addition of “u-pick” opportunities allows people to select fresh herbs, vegetables, and flowers on their own.
People may seek out the farm to find comfort in nature, to form relationships, or to pray in thanksgiving. The simplest invitation the farm extends is to enjoy the beauty of the Earth. “You are always welcome there,” offers Gonzalez-Diaz. As the farm grows into the future, Insley hopes that it will be an aesthetically pleasing place where anyone can “come and rest, and listen to the bees.” The College continues to envision a place accessible to all, especially as a place of rest, retreat, learning, and growth, providing physical and spiritual nourishment while embodying Saint Mary’s mission.