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One Class, One Day: Urban Agriculture Takes Root

MET gastronomy course an instant hit

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Students attend their last MET Urban Agriculture class, in the Fenway Victory Gardens. Photo by Cydney Scott

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Noah Wilson-Rich flashed a picture showing a serene rooftop scene in the South End across the classroom’s projection screen. Lounge chairs faced a gorgeous view of Boston at dusk, the kind of spot that inspires envy on a warm summer’s night.

Wilson-Rich pointed out an unobtrusive box in the image masquerading as a coffee table. It turned out to be a beehive, one of 37 the owner of Best Bees Company has installed from Rockport to Provincetown.

“What I love about beekeeping is you can make it your own,” he says.

The urban beekeeper was speaking to a group that needed little convincing: students enrolled in Metropolitan College’s new gastronomy elective Urban Agriculture. The summer session course takes students outdoors, where they plant urban gardens, and encourages them to cast a critical eye on how food is produced and distributed.

Urban agriculture is “a way to push back against a food system in crisis,” says Rachel Eden Black, a MET assistant professor and coordinator of the gastronomy program. “People in cities have always been attracted to getting in touch with nature. The city can be an alienating place in a very basic sense. Gardens are another way to commune with nature for a moment.”

The new course was an instant hit, filling its 19 slots within the first hour of registration. Students read and discuss books like Novella Carpenter’s Farm City and Holley Bishop’s Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey. In addition, they welcome presenters who push the boundaries of how gardening is defined, such as the creators of the Boston Truck Farm, who garden in the bed of a pickup, or Lisa Gross, who started the nonprofit Boston Tree Party to encourage the cultivation of public fruit-bearing trees. And they take field trips to places like Boston’s William Carter School, which has a sensory garden for its special needs students.

But what the course’s students look forward to most is getting their hands dirty in the Fenway Victory Gardens, where they are divided into four groups, each with a plot to experiment in. While a couple are experienced gardeners, most of the students had never so much as planted a seed before taking the class. They have kept a running blog chronicling their green thumb adventures.

“Germination was a big deal,” Black says with a laugh. The longtime gardener takes a hands-off approach to teaching gardening, tossing her students an occasional in-class tip after touring their gardens—advice like, go easy on the seeding, or, buy tomato cages. Overall, she allows students to learn through trial and error. They researched what works best in Boston’s climate and then decided what to plant. “They didn’t ask anything,” she says. “They just went for it.”

And they learned some unexpected lessons along the way. “I never would have anticipated that gardening would teach me patience,” writes Kristen Merrill (MET’12) in a blog post. “I thought after 30 years that wasn’t something I was ever going to learn. But when it comes to gardening, I’ve found that I’m content to plant some seeds, water them when needed, and let nature do the rest.”

On a recent night, one of the session’s last classes, two bottles of cider stand on a table in the front of the classroom among a spread of cheeses, crusty French bread, preserves, and brownies. Students fill their paper plates in preparation for the long night ahead.

Black sits beside the table addressing the circle of students. She launches a discussion by asking, “What is domesticity?”

There is a pause. No one wants to be first.

“Bringing something into your home,” says Rob Booz (MET’12). “It comes from the word domicile.” He should know, as the proud owner of at least one backyard chicken.

Black jumps to the blackboard and begins weaving students’ responses into an intricate word map. They tackle concepts like development, selective breeding, hygiene, and dependence as it relates to the domestication of plants and animals. The conversation then turns to humans’ often conflicted feelings toward the natural environment—are we supposed to separate ourselves from it as part of an unspoken hierarchy, or find communion for a common good?

Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography

Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography

Lucia Austria (MET’13) (left) and Khalilah Ramdene (MET’13) sample honey after a beekeeping presentation. Photo by Cydney Scott

Black brings up Bishop’s book, which chronicles the author’s apprenticeship to a professional beekeeper and delves into the history, science, and culture of beekeeping. Her research reveals the many ways bees’ lives have been intertwined with humans’ over time.

“It’s not clear-cut where nature begins or ends,” Black tells the class.

Khalilah Ramdene (MET’13) searches for words to explain her ambivalence after reading Bishop’s book. “It’s hard to think of it as a partnership,” she says. “It’s hard to see how the other half is benefiting from us.”

As if on cue, Wilson-Rich knocks on the door and enters carrying a sample beehive, sans bees. He quickly sets up shop and launches into an informative PowerPoint presentation on beekeeping that manages to make honey, well, funny.

Bees, Wilson-Rich tells the students, pollinate at least 130 crops (a $14.6 billion industry) in the United States, which makes the fact that vast populations of the insects are dying of a disease called colony collapse disorder even more alarming. The disease is still a mystery.

But Wilson-Rich offers a note of hope for the urban agrarians assembled. “We find that bees in urban areas do better than in rural,” he says.

Soon the moment the class has been waiting for arrives: tasting the honey. Wilson-Rich passes around six varieties for students to sample, ranging from rural to urban and U.S. to Canadian sources. Everyone thoughtfully sucks on taster sticks while discussing flavor subtleties.

Ever the gastronomy student, Lucia Austria (MET’13) asks the beekeeper: “If you were to make mead, which one would you use?”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

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