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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Sustainable farming, food insecurity at Western

The Outback Farm works to meet student food needs in a sustainable way at Western Washington University

Blueberry bushes being planted on the Outback Farm by May Weinmaster (left), the Outback Farm’s Operations Coordinator, and Cassidy Thornton (right), the Permaculture Coordinator in early 2021.
Blueberry bushes being planted on the Outback Farm by May Weinmaster (left), the Outback Farm’s Operations Coordinator, and Cassidy Thornton (right), the Permaculture Coordinator in early 2021. // Courtesy of Caitlin Paddock

By Winnie Killingsworth

Welcome to The Outback. 

For some, this means a major portion of Australia, while for others, a steakhouse.

For the Bellingham area, it means a community garden, and for Western students, it’s their very own farm. 

The Outback Farm is a five-acre and 61 plot on-campus farm established in 1972 that relies on student managers and volunteers for upkeep. 

The farm has a creek that flows into Connelly Creek with a delineated wetland surrounding it, which is a transition area from aquatic ecosystems to hills or land above sea level, surrounding it. 

The wetland prevents construction, which is how Western is able to have a garden of this size on campus and easily accessible to students. 

The farm also practices permaculture and is a food forest with production rows.

“Permaculture is a sustainable, resilient form of living and producing food,” said Terri Kempton, the Outback Farm manager. “It’s a set of design techniques that are used to work with a landscape to have it be fruitful and productive for people, but also for the other animals and plants.”

A food forest occurs when trees help protect the smaller plants below, Kempton said. Trees need little tending after being planted, unlike annual plants that need constant watering and weeding. 

The farm operates on ethical principles based on “earth care, people care and fair share, which is a justice approach,” Kempton said.  

It also focuses on food justice by combating food insecurity on campus.

In 2017, Fairhaven students Katelyn Notestine, Emily Schauble and Makena DeGolier found over half of the Western students surveyed “cut the size of [their] meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money to afford a balanced meal.”

The Outback works with Associated Students pop-up pantries to help meet the food needs of students. 

Caitlin Paddock, the AS Outback engagement coordinator, helped with some of the pantries in the spring 2020 when they were first starting up and serving an estimated 50 students each time. 

Sustainability, along with food justice, was one of the pop-up pantries goals. 

“We do our best to do things that can compost, but sometimes we have to use a little plastic bag,” Paddock said. “But they are reusable; you could take those to the store and buy produce in them because they don’t have a net weight.”

The farm does not work only with students. 

For a number of years, it has had a connection with Bellingham Food Bank.

“[The Bellingham Food Bank] have always received some degree of produce that’s been grown on the farm,” said Mike Cohen, the food bank’s executive director. “We are very supportive of any local agriculture, any contributions to the food system, any experience that people who live in Bellingham can have with things like the Outback Farm.” 

Currently, the farm has a speaker series on food, farming, diversity and justice. The first event took place on Feb. 11 with the group Veggie Mijas speaking on “Decolonizing Veganism.”

Veggie Mijas is a collective of women, transgender folks of color and gender non-conforming individuals who focus on living or exploring a plant-based lifestyle, marginalized identities and food insecurity/food apartheids according to their website.

There are three upcoming events in the series over the next three months. The March event, “Farming While Black” with Soul Fire Farm, does not have a specific date yet. “Towards Regenerative Culture” with Farmer Rishi Kumar speaking is Apr. 14 at 4 p.m. The final event is May 19 at 4 p.m. with Dr. Robin W. Kimmerer speaking on “The Honorable Harvest.” 

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