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The Old Acre

The first time I go to the Yale Farm, I am reminded of Marie Antoinette and Le Hameau de la Reine, the ornamental village she built outside Versailles. She would put on her best peasant dress and wander between the dovecote and the dairy, where it is said (alas, apocryphally) that she enjoyed milking goats adorned with ribbons. This is not an exact analogy for the farm, but it’s pretty close, I think, locking my bike to a lamppost. Yale students, too, sometimes stray from their castles to spend an afternoon picking vegetables they did not plant. 

The farm is about a mile from the center of Yale’s campus, past the mansions on Hillhouse Avenue and the old laboratories on Prospect Street. It occupies almost an acre of university grounds, tightly planted with rows of vegetables and herbs. The farm has no buildings, just a wooden pavilion that protects its red-brick pizza oven and picnic tables from the elements. 

Property manager Jeremy Oldfield waves from his riding mower as I cut uphill toward the middle of the farm. I wave back and wait for him under the pavilion. We’re several days into a scorching September heatwave, but it’s not yet 10 a.m. and the farm is still cool and dewy. The last of the late summer light pours out onto the apple trees, the rows of squash and corn, the ragged bed of wildflowers that separates the farm from the street. Up here, if the sky is right, you can see all the way to the Long Island Sound. 

“This is an interesting hillside we’re sitting on,” Jeremy says. Before it was a farm, the land belonged to William Whitman Farnam, a member of the Yale Corporation who lived at the top of the hill. When Farnam died in 1929, his widow promised their estate to Yale on the condition that the university wouldn’t build on the land, devoting it instead to the study of plants. The hillside was largely ignored until 2000, when a band of students called “Food from the Earth” began lobbying to turn it into a farm. Their cause was taken up by Alice Waters—a Yale parent and the grand dame of California’s farm-to-table scene—who talked then-university president Richard Levin into the idea. Students broke ground on the farm in the spring of 2003, nicknaming it the Old Acre. 

“The myth was that the students came under the cover of darkness with chainsaws,” Jeremy tells me. “Everything needs a nice, dramatic creation myth.” Jeremy is 41, with sandy hair and a big laugh. He spent years farming in Maine and California, but the Yale Farm is unlike any he’s worked at before. Most of its crops are selected not for their ability to feed a family or turn a profit, but because they’re “narratively interesting,” he says. Last year, Jeremy and his student employees planted a field illustrating several centuries of grain evolution; this year, they’re growing indigo for an art class studying the history of dye production. 

It’s the farm’s capacity for storytelling that interests student manager Calista Washburn ’24. I meet her on a golden evening after one of the farm’s weekly open workdays. We sit in the grass under an apple tree, watching fat white hens peck inside a coop a few yards away. When a group of sophomores comes over to ask if they’re allowed to pick the apples, she gently tells them that no, the farm is saving them for a Russian literature class reading a play with an extended fruit-picking metaphor, but they’re welcome to any that have already fallen. 

“There’s hilarious impracticalities here,” Calista laughs, telling me about how much time students on the farm spend hand-weeding the vegetables and about the week they used tiny scythes to harvest wheat. “It totally changed the way I understood history and technology and feeding people.”

Here, she explains, there are no boundaries between the dirt of the real world and the ideas taught down the hill. There are also no physical boundaries between the farm and the rest of Yale, no locked gates or requirements for entry. This is why Calista has recently become so concerned about the deer, who have been grazing on the farm’s sweet potato plants in droves since the beginning of the summer. A commercial farm might shoot the deer or scare them off with deafening sound alarms, but neither of these are feasible options on a college campus. The Yale Farm has discussed keeping the deer out with an eight-foot fence, the kind of barrier that it has intentionally resisted for its twenty years of existence. Jeremy tells me a fence could go up as early as this spring, but there is still no definite plan in place. 

The two other student farm managers I speak to both independently bring up the dilemma with the deer. “It’s this crisis moment,” one of them, Natalie Smink ’24, tells me emphatically. But when I talk to Jeremy about it, he doesn’t seem too concerned. The students will find a way to protect the sweet potatoes, and if that means building a fence around the farm, then they’ll find new ways of inviting people in. This is one of the farm’s true purposes, he tells me: to provide students who are used to studying ideas in the abstract with tangible problems to solve. 

“You’ll go through a bed of carrots that is wild and wooly with three different types of weeds, and by the end of the workday it is legibly a carrot bed,” Jeremy says. “You find students kind of lingering there, in front of this living physical testament of the work that they just did.”

And even after only a few hours on the farm, I believe him. Because perhaps this is what all of us, even Marie Antoinette, are doing: searching in the dirt for something that feels alive and real and good.

Lucy Hodgman is a senior in Grace Hopper College.

Illustration by Angela Huo

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