Opinion: Growing Plants and People at the Painted Turtle Farm
By Anna Cincotta, Opinions Editor
I couldn’t even keep a succulent alive when I started working for the Center for Public Service on campus. Somehow, though, I found myself drawn to the Painted Turtle Farm. Now I’m one of two students responsible for running it.
There’s something kind of magical about the place. It’s a space for families and students. For dialogue and social justice and community. I wouldn’t call it a part of campus—or a part of town, for that matter. It’s an in-between space where sunsets last longer. Where there are too many radishes to count.
Right now we have about thirty plots, and they all belong to local immigrant families. They choose which herbs and vegetables they’d like to grow, and the farm provides them with seeds. Sometimes the families grow things that they can’t find in local grocery stores, like pipicha and papalo.
In order to buy seeds and tools for the growing season, we run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. College faculty who choose to buy into the farm at the start of the season become our CSA members, and they receive either weekly or biweekly bags of fresh produce from our main plot. We put together about 15 CSA bags every week. On Wednesday mornings, after we’re finished with our early harvest, the entire CPS office smells like vegetables.
We grow squash and tomatoes and lettuce and eggplant. Peppers and parsley and potatoes. Pumpkins and peas and carrots. Green beans and kale. Flowers. Garlic. Onions.
During our weekly community nights, kids and students play soccer, tag, and go through lots of Crayola markers, pipe-cleaners, and construction paper. When you walk through the gate to the farm, you’re greeted with rows of sunflowers and zinnias, a big grassy area for potlucks, and a little community lending library perched in the center of a circle of Adirondack chairs. We have big orange umbrellas to block the sun, and a solar panel on our shed that we use as our power source when we plug in the scale to weigh vegetables. There are pastel paint stains on the picnic tables.
I love it there. I loved it when I first started working there, too. But again: I didn’t consider myself a green thumb. Succulents were more challenging for me than they should’ve been, remember?
During my first few weeks on the job I pulled out seedlings instead of weeds, ripped our hose to shreds with a lawn mower, and was incapable of harvesting a carrot.
I’d never seen—let alone eaten—a purple pepper. Kohlrabi and Swiss Chard sounded made up.
I felt like I couldn’t do it.
But I learned and asked a lot of questions. Spent a lot of time talking to the CPS director and my community partner. The people around me trusted the experiential learning process, and always had an idea of what my learning curve would look like—even when I couldn’t distinguish one radish from another.
I’m not really sure how it happened, but now I feel more comfortable running work shifts and managing volunteers. My voice shakes less when I talk about how the farm started.
During one community night, I had a conversation with a woman who has been a part of the farm for a long time. I asked her about her family, and she asked about mine. Her son is in his twenties, and lives about an hour away from her.
“I miss my son so much,” she said. “It must be hard for you to be away from your family.”
It was the first time anyone had ever said something like that to me in Gettysburg. I do miss my family, but being on campus forces students to sidestep conversations like that. College is a selfish time—everything is about you. What do you want to study? What will classes do for you in the long-run? What career path will you take?
But at what expense? Isn’t that counterproductive, to an extent? Shouldn’t your preparation for the workforce be grounded in experiences that go beyond the individual?
The farm sheds light on things that are far more important than test grades and resumes. Bigger things. Community. Food security. Family. Sustainability. What’s even more crucial about it is that it provides an opportunity to step outside of the campus bubble. Outside of ourselves.
My job with CPS is also one of the main reasons I feel more prepared for the workforce than I did when I started my first semester. The problem-solving and leadership skills involved in a community development position launch students into real world issues. Even though class discussions surrounding social change have the potential to inspire and open minds, it’s real-life projects that result in tangible outcomes. We need a combination of the two.
It’s important to learn about and process big societal issues in our classes—the role of international law in promoting peace, for example, or the socio-economic factors at play when it comes to issues like educational inequity. But tackling community development projects through experiential learning opportunities or on-campus jobs makes students feel like they’re capable of tackling injustice at the local level. It’s a starting point.
And hey, if the girl who destroyed a 50-foot-long hose with a lawnmower can learn how to identify Kohlrabi in a garden, you can, too. Gettysburg students have countless opportunities to turn their passion for social justice into action. And maybe—hopefully—those actions will turn into innovative careers that make long-lasting change in communities everywhere.