Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 2.
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Student perspective/ The Life Organic
Down on the Farm

Story and photo by Peter Enzminger '08

The Farm feels a world away from the rest of campus. South of the Wash, east of Frank Dining Hall, tucked into the farthest southeast acreage of campus lies a free-form redoubt of organic creativity, home to hundreds of fruit trees, countless plants and flowers, and one student-conceived-and-constructed earth dome.

From its beginnings nearly a decade ago, the Farm has been a living, growing, photosynthesizing testimony to what student initiative can accomplish. Like the trowel-wielding progeny of Che Guevara and Alice Waters, the original Farm collaborators gardened clandestinely, working below the radar. Since then, it has evolved into a fixture on the curricula of many environmentally-focused classes and a place many students enjoy visiting—even if only to pick some flowers.

The Farm has a more prominent profile nowadays, thanks in no small part to the construction of a rammed earth dome that arises amid the gardens. The structure, which actually consists of one central dome with four smaller ones connected to it, grew out of an independent study class mentored by Politics and Environmental Analysis Professor Rick Worthington in the fall of 2001. “A few students approached me about a course in sustainable architecture, and I agreed to helm a five- or six-person class, but before I knew what was happening, 19 students had enrolled,” Worthington recalls. “There were assigned readings and small group projects, and the dome became the fruit of these labors.” Researching “green” architecture led them to the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture and the innovatively low-tech domes championed by its founder, architect Nader Khalili. At the Farm, these students found a nurturing environment for their commitment to sustainability, and a perfect staging area for the intersection of academia and its practical application.

Students devoted long hours of manual labor to create the dome. But the dome that stands today is actually the sequel to the original effort. Because it was built without the required city permits, the first earth dome was torn down in August 2002, a disappointment to the students who built it. But a new and larger dome arose from the rubble in January 2004, and reckoning with the details of city planning turned out to be a constructive experience for many
involved, especially environmental analysis major Bowen Patterson ’06. As a freshman, Bowen learned of the dome’s demise and helped spearhead the effort to get a new dome approved and built. For someone pursuing a graduate degree in city planning, the approval process provided a unique experience with the real world nuts and bolts of contractors, city codes and architectural commissions. Domed structures were not even allowed in Los Angeles County; sections of the code had to be re-written before approval could even be considered. The city also required the addition of iron rebar and concrete before construction could proceed.

The dome symbolizes a commitment to learning above and beyond the academic call of duty, but it is also a symbol of compromise and collaboration: it might not have been possible without the financial underwriting of the College administration and the steady moral and logistical support of the programs in environmental analysis and public policy.

Nonetheless, the spark came from students, a detail which makes all the difference when describing the Farm’s value. Last spring, students learned that the College planned to relocate the Farm as part of its Master Plan for the campus. Though the new space would be
larger and the dome would remain, the plan would replace years of student-tilled space with oak trees and a relocated soccer field. Students who loved the Farm precisely for its un-transplantable qualities considered that outcome untenable. They sprang into action—meeting with President David Oxtoby, sending mass e-mails, signing petitions, staging protests and painting Walker Wall. Their impassioned efforts persuaded Oxtoby to create a new planning committee incorporating student and faculty voices into the official dialogue of the Farm’s future. The Board of Trustees approved a compromise reached by this committee in May, and the original Farm remains, albeit with a few nips and tucks.

When he heard about the drive to preserve the existing Farm, Alex Cohen ’08 knew he had found the perfect opportunity to apply his passion for environmentalism. “School focuses so heavily on a cognitive understanding of social, economic, scientific and environmental issues, but there is something about working with soil, about being in a natural environment, that is not captured by words and lectures,” he explains. “I think a lot more people would be environmentalists if they got outside and saw why people want to conserve and preserve nature.”

That is what the Farm is for.

©Copyright 2006
by Pomona College
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