By Daniella Byck
The balmy breeze moves through uncurling leaves basking in the powerful afternoon sun. Framed by the curving reeds of emerald green, Garden Director Samson Srok is tending to a rectangle of rich, dark soil. Planted right outside of the growing metropolis and cultivated by the hands of those still learning, F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture’s Eagle Heights Garden is growing roots outside of the soil.
“I took a gap year and I lived in rural Ecuador and I just had the experience of living with subsistent farmers,” Srok says. “And definitely in the little community that I was in, the ability to grow your own food was like a sense of liberation.”
Upon returning to Wisconsin, Srok rediscovered that connection to the land as one of the Garden Directors for F.H. King. The organization’s focus on sustainable agriculture means using farming techniques with respect to an assemblage of the land, human quality of life and economic systems. F.H. King connects to the land physically – working with the crops in their gardens – and cognitively. Education programs include workshops on topics ranging from seed preservation to companion and interplanting.
The organization is named after Franklin Hiram King, an early 20th century agricultural physics professor at UW-Madison. The UW-Madison Department of Soil Science refers to King as a “pioneer scientist” famous for his groundbreaking work in the field. The students in his namesake organization are also pioneers in their own right: according to the US Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, the average age of the U.S. farmer is 58.3 years old. The students farming in F.H. King are at least half that age and bringing a fresh voice to centuries of tradition.
“The importance of the local farmer, especially to Wisconsin, is so important to our history and this land and just the future of what agriculture could look like,” Srok says.
For those seeking to understand more about that future, one only has to hop on the route 80 bus and watch as familiar campus buildings fall away and utopia emerges. The Eagle Heights Community Garden is a sprawling set of plots farmed by the University of Wisconsin Madison and local community members. F.H. King has one of the largest plots in the garden, second to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“There’s something really emotional that feels really awesome about that connection to the earth,” Srok smiles. “There’s this weird sense of childlike joy and wonderment when you see things growing. And it definitely changes how I think about food and what I’m putting in my body.”
Thought is at the center of what F.H. King does. In the midst of student life, the Eagle Heights garden is as idyllic as a modern day Garden of Eden. But in this paradise, the tree of knowledge has been devoured. In-depth understanding of the land and it’s needs is a central step in the sustainable farming process. Recently, F.H. King has partnered with a soil science student. The student uses the fields for research and gives the farmers an idea of what their soil needs.
“I like this space being a place where students can connect and experiment with these different aspects of sustainability and agriculture so that at the end of the day we all get something out of that and the farm becomes better,” Srok says.
A better farm means better food. Because sustainable farming focuses on a diverse set of perspectives, conscious consumption also plays a key role in F.H. King’s activity. Once a week, the students bring their yield to East Campus Mall for Harvest Handouts, making sustainable produce more accessible to their peers.
Srok emanates a sense of hopefulness for the future. Perhaps that hopefulness comes with confidence in the partnership between human and land: a mutual promise to nurture and to nourish. As a young farmer with a sustainable framework, Srok carries the seeds of the future. If the Eagle Heights garden is any indication, the harvest will be plentiful.