Yale Divinity Farm: A Story About Starting

Andrew K. Barnett

Here’s what happened when an idealistic bunch of Yale seminarians decided to start anyway. Five years ago, global climate talks had just collapsed, and a lot of us were feeling hopeless. I read the essay Michael Pollan wrote after Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Pollan basically said, in the face of daunting odds, he would go out back to plant a garden. He thought it was the least he could do, it would make a dent in his carbon footprint, and it would be a beautiful thing to plant veggies with his kids.

About that time, members of Yale Earth Care Committee (YECC), a YDS student group, considered what we might do with the last few weeks of school and how we might use our last funds. I mentioned the Pollan article, and folks were interested. The next day, the YDS dean had a BBQ, and he got several of us talking about how fun it would be to grow cucumbers sometime.

“Funny you should mention that,” I said to Harry Attridge, who was dean at the time. “We were hoping to plant a garden next week. Can I talk to you tomorrow morning?”

We met at 7:30 a.m. “YECC has $1,000 and 15 volunteers who would love to plant a vegetable garden. Whadyathink?” I said. He took me for a walk and made some phone calls. Two weeks later we broke ground near the YDS dorms when an anonymous (and amazing) maintenance employee drove his bulldozer over at 7 a.m. to avoid detection from the shift supervisor.

Later that day six volunteers showed up, but the rain made us quit early. We had just converted 2,000 square feet of country club lawn into a mud hole, and we were facing disaster. I could just imagine the Monday morning hecklers, to say nothing of the University bigwigs who lived nearby. Start anyway? Really? How’d that work out?

That night, we called everybody we knew. I was texting like crazy between songs at a concert. “Urgent: we need hands at the farm tomorrow morning. Can you make it? #therewillbecookies.” The next day at 7:30 a.m., four folks met with a rototiller and a big pile of cow poop. By 8:30 we had 10 people hauling soil, and by 9:30 we had 20 people planting seedlings and spreading mulch. Over the course of that day, more than 30 people joined in, and we built the garden in two days. We went on to craft a compost bin, shed, irrigation system, and integrated community garden. Today, YDS community volunteers compost the salad bar waste from the cafeteria. Future pastors tend the veggies. Neighbors bring their kids to play.

This little farm took us beyond theory, toward action, and it changed hearts. I love the relationships that formed when we jumped in, learned to garden as the plants grew, and met people who stopped by. Someone met the guy who runs New Haven’s farm-to foodshelf program, and we brought him produce. We shared food for seminary meals, and with apartment residents. There’s this great kid Robert who planted a giant pumpkin and started bringing his friends to the garden every day to watch it grow.

Five years later, YDS now funds a student farm manager who coordinates volunteers and keeps the place running. None of us knew enough or had enough to start. But, guided by idealism and a bit of naïveté, we started anyway.