In between Buchanan Towers and the Fairhaven dorms is a 5-acre strip of land known affectionately to Western students as the Outback farm. Many who use the Fairhaven access road walk by it every day without ever noticing it.
Behind the eco-friendly spot is a dedicated group of experimental farmers.
The Outback was originally homesteaded by author June Burns and her husband in 1920. The couple set up a modest cabin and eventually it was given to the University in the 1960s. Western decided to renovate the patch of land into dorms and parking lots, but a small group of students who had grown fond of the spot responded by setting up their own community and inhabiting the space to prevent the change.
These students later constructed barns, began raising livestock and started experimenting with various forms of agriculture in what came to be known as the Outback. The land was officially endorsed and given academic protection in 1999 and became an official program called the “Outback Cooperative,” one year later.
In the same spirit as those that worked to save the land from redevelopment decades before, Outback coordinator Matia Jones believes there is no greater reward than digging in the dirt with her fellow student gardeners.
“I'm really excited about getting more people out there whether it is through internships, work studies, Americorps, or volunteers. We're trying to get more people involved in maintaining our garden,” she said.
The “garden” is actually a group of four different themed ecological sites maintained solely by Western students and staff.
Most popular among these sites is the community garden, which allows any student to reserve a plot of land and grow whatever they choose. Experimentation is encouraged as long as what is being grown in each plot remains organic.
Spaces are limited, so the Outback asks that you be prepared to commit at least a year (including summer) to maintaining your plot. Once you've checked your calendar, Jones asks that you e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://outback.as.wwu.edu/. Tools, seeds and soil are also provided free of charge as long as you're committed to getting a little dirt on your boots.
Two other agro-ecologic farms residing in the Outback are the market and forest gardens.
The market garden is an experiment in both organic farming and social assistance. Like the community garden, all of the work is done by student volunteers and after the crops have been harvested, they are sold on campus or donated to the local food bank.
Tucked away in the south-east corner of the Outback, the forest garden differs from the market and community gardens. Fairhaven student Carl Wollschlager planted berry plants and various fruit trees to create a long-term environmental research site. The forest garden is also notable for the experimental process of growing long-lasting vegetation called “permaculture”. Using biodynamic growing techniques such as holistic development of the soil (which evaluates soil in terms of environmental, social and economic effects along with scientific facts), Wollschlager was able to grow “ethno-botanical” material, also known as local plant life.
Jones is looking for experienced botanists (“garden mentors”) to volunteer to maintain these gardens and help educate first-time planters.
“We would like to have students who have a lot of gardening experience and can volunteer their time to share their knowledge with others,” Jones said.
The Outback's most popular attraction, the amphitheater, is still under construction, but according to Jones, it's coming along. Over the summer student volunteers were able to achieve a “technically difficult feat,” by fitting the deck of the future performance stage. Along with the amphitheater, Jones and her crew will be tearing down and rebuilding three dilapidated old sheds.
Jones also said that they've reached out to Woodring College of Education to assess and build a curriculum with the intent of encouraging students that are aware of their ecological surroundings.
“Right now, when we have an energy crisis, a food crisis and financial instability it's more important than ever to learn about and begin to move toward alternate solutions to each crisis. We're working on that here,” she said.
“Or they can just come get dirty with us,” Jones added with a laugh.