The community garden in 2006

The community garden in 2006

The community garden in 2009

The community garden in 2009

The tool shed area in 2006

The tool shed area in 2006

The tool shed area in 2009. Photos courtesy of Matia Jones

The tool shed area in 2009. Photos courtesy of Matia Jones

Evan Marczynski/The AS Review

When Outback Farm Coordinator Matia Jones began renovating the plot of land located behind Fairhaven College in 2006, she and the small number of volunteers who joined her encountered what can only be described as a mess.

The farm had fallen into an extended period of disarray. The tool shed was so rotted that they were able to knock it over by just pushing on it.

They hauled away old mattresses and dump trucks full of trash.

Reclaiming the valuable garden plots from the invasive overgrowth of blackberry bushes and ivy became a monumental, back-breaking task.

But now, four years later, as Jones prepares to graduate from Fairhaven at the end of this quarter, the Outback has been reborn.

Not only have major renovations been completed, but according to a recent evaluation completed by the farm’s coordinators, the number of people involved with programs and events at the Outback in 2009 was nearly double the number from previous two years combined.

The Outback now has a new greenhouse, a number of new cedar signs placed around its grounds, a rebuilt tool shed and new raised planting beds in the community garden.

The money for the renovations came from an $11,000 funding approval from the AS board of directors last year. Jones said the funding allowed the Outback to make much-needed infrastructure improvements.

“It set the stage for us to do a ton of renovation projects,” she said.

However, back when Jones first started cleaning up the farm, the possibility of what the Outback has now become was still just an idea. When she took over as coordinator for the Outback, she knew she had a major project on her hands.
“When I came in, it was at a very low point and it was just really dilapidated,” she said. “It was a farm that hadn’t been tended to.”

With around 10 other volunteers, Jones began the process of restoring the farm.

At first, she told friends and people in her classes how they might be able to help if they wanted to, Jones said.

Everything was on a volunteer basis and if people showed up to help haul away trash or pull out blackberry bushes they were thanked with homegrown vegetables.

Jones was even able to convince a friend of hers who coached the college’s lacrosse team to bring his players in to help.

“It’s kind of funny, looking back it was like a ‘Tom Sawyer’ kind of move, like ‘Hey, I’m going rip out many, many square yards of blackberries and double-dig these incredibly heavy clay-silt rocky soils, it’s fun, you should come and join!’” she said. “It worked. We started small and made a reliable little garden and gave people produce when they would come and help.”

Jones said things really began to pick up in 2006 when the Outback became an official AS program and was able to create its first paid student coordinator position.

The farm was then able to organize itself into its current structure, which includes not only the community garden but also an educational garden that teaches people how to grow organic food and a number of other gardens devoted to plant study and cultivation.

Reflecting on her time spent at the Outback, Jones said she sees the farm as a tremendous resource and benefit to Western students and faculty.

“I think it’s a wonderful complement to a lot of the programs and academic focuses in Huxley and in Fairhaven around ecological justice, environmental stewardship and sustainable lifestyles,” she said.

Outback Faculty Adviser and Fairhaven Professor John Tuxill said he teaches three or four classes each quarter that are directly involved with the Outback in some way.

“It’s directly integrated with my teaching,” Tuxill said. “There’s no other place on campus that I could use that same way as a resource.”

Each spring, Tuxill teaches an ethnobotany class in which his students study and catalogue the plant life growing in the farm and the surrounding area.

Tuxill said the Outback serves as an excellent field laboratory for his students.

“For me, teaching-wise, it’s a really unique spot on campus,” he said.

Fairhaven Dean Roger Gilman said in an e-mail that the Outback is healthy and flourishing, but he would like to see more planning from college professors in Huxley, Fairhaven and the biology department to make good use of the farm for teaching and research purposes.

“All this is possible, but needs to be accomplished,” Gilman wrote.

Jones’ experience of bringing the farm back to life has also given her a unique perspective on some of the challenges that the Outback continues to deal with.

One major aspect of some of the struggles she has faced as a coordinator for the farm is the unique situation the Outback finds itself in as a program that is jointly run by Fairhaven and the AS.

The organizational structure of the Outback requires a tremendous amount of coordination between different administrators and boards of different departments on campus in order to get anything done, Jones said.

“Every single project took an enormous amount of paperwork. You have to go through so many dozens of people that it’s prohibitively slow,” she said.  “The tool shed that’s out there, it’s a tiny little thing, but it took six months of paperwork to get it built and that story repeats itself over and over again.”

One solution Jones has suggested to the AS board is to create a long-term, non-student staff position devoted solely to the Outback. That way there would be someone to handle all the larger projects on the farm that require more work and follow-through, Jones said.

Overall, Jones said there should be more communication between all those involved with the planning and funding of the Outback.

“I have proposed that we have some sort of large meeting of the minds, maybe even once a quarter, something for people to come and touch base,” she said.

Anyone interested in getting involved with the Outback Farm can e-mail outbackgardens@gmail.com. More information on the farm can also be found at the Fairhaven Web site at http://www.wwu.edu/fairhaven/studentlife/outback/.