Farming as Experiential Learning: An Interview with Saskia Cornes

Sarah Rogers

How does farming serve as a lens through which we can view our relationship to the world? Dr. Saskia Cornes, Program Director at the Duke Campus Farm and Assistant Professor of the Practice at the Franklin Humanities Institute, talks to us about how she approaches her work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How does your scholarship inform your approach to farm work, and vice versa? 

In terms of Early Modern scholarship, my current project is about the dialogue between literature and practical manuals on agriculture in seventeenth century England. Bringing in my knowledge of actual agricultural practice really helped me in terms of contextualizing and historicizing what I was reading, and gave me some new entry points into more familiar trends. These handbooks trace lots of things we think about when we think about the Renaissance – the rise of literacy and experimental science, the ‘discovery’ of the New World, urbanization and the move toward private property – but in new ways.

When I teach farming, I teach it in the same ways that I teach close reading – both are about close observation, looking for patterns, and making meaning from those patterns. For example, when you encounter a pest or disease on your farm, or a weakness in a specific crop, you end up creating a lot of work for yourself if you treat each of these as one-off incidents. Looking for patterns and seeing things as a system gives you lodestars to guide your work. There’s a kind of theorizing that has to underlie the sheer number of decisions you have to make as a grower.

DukeImmerse class
The DukeImmerse class for "The Future of Food" leans into a presentation about local crops at the Duke Campus Farm in September 2018. Saskia Cornes wears a John Deere hat. Photo by Dean Rhoades.

As an educator, I teach critical systems thinking, and a farm is a wonderful model of a complex system. We can use the farm as a teaching tool to start getting students thinking holistically about problems they encounter out in the world. I don’t situate the way we run this farm as some kind of final answer, but rather as a site that visibly presents a series of questions. This goes beyond challenges to our food system, or even the health and environmental issues we more commonly associate with food and farming, to issues of identity, equity, entrepreneurship, culture – we can get from food to more or less any academic discipline, because everything begins and ends with food and the soil it comes from.

When did you come to Duke, and what are some of the most exciting projects you’ve led or participated in during your time here?

I was brought on to manage the Duke Campus Farm in 2014. Part of my mandate was to raise its academic standing and demonstrate that farming was serious intellectual work. Initially, that took the form of seeking new faculty collaborators for the farm. I was one of the earliest members of the Environmental Arts and Humanities network, which brought together various nodes and cells of faculty working on environmental issues and environmental humanities all over the university, and made this work more visible on campus. Then I started co-teaching a course with Priscilla Wald, Daniel Richter, and Jedidiah Purdy—“The Environment in Literature, Law, and Science.” Eventually, this evolved into my having this wonderful position [a faculty appointment at the Franklin Humanities Institute], where I’m continuing to expand farm collaborations and also have the capacity to design and teach my own courses.

Saskia Cornes and Laurent Savoy
Cornes tours the Duke Campus Farm with Lauret Savoy, author of Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, in the spring of 2018. Savoy's visit to Duke was organized by the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University as part of the Facing the Anthropocene. Photo by Eric Barstow.

The DukeImmerse program I’m currently co-directing [Imagining the Future of Food, Fall 2018] is a landmark for the farm. It’s allowed us to combine not just different disciplines—anthropology, engineering, biology, and literature—but also different epistemologies and ways of knowing, including embodied knowledge, or what some might call experiential learning. We’re doing work and problem-solving at the Farm, and traveling to California and looking at a range of food systems work there. We’re looking at the issue from all sorts of different perspectives – the tech industry, venture capital, migrant workers, food justice.

This fall we’re also collaborating with Student Action with Farmworkers and Charlie Thompson on a class project involving a whole range of community partners, including local mural artist  Cornelio Campos. The class will culminate in a mural for the Duke Campus Farm, designed by students and Campos in collaboration with our community partners, about the labor history of the local area, beginning pre-contact with the Occaneechi-Saponi peoples, going through plantation and slavery economies, up to present-day, where agriculture is driving new migration patterns and bringing in new communities from the Global South, primarily from Mexico. I’m excited about that, to be able to acknowledge the land’s many pasts.

In the spring, I’ll be co-teaching Sowers and Reapers: Gardening in an Age of Change, which is Robin Kirk’s Bass Connections project. This fall, the students have been visiting sites, doing oral histories, mapping, and learning the history of community gardens in Durham. I'll help the students transform their research into a public-facing exhibition with a national organization called the Humanities Action Lab

What other opportunities do you see in the future?

The biggest thing we have coming down the pike is an expansion of the Duke Campus Farm space. The timeline and location are works in progress, but we’re having promising conversations with the administration about bringing the farm closer to campus, which will make us more accessible and allow us to expand our programming and reach.

I should also say that the Farm welcomes collaborations with faculty! They can reach out to us at any phase of the process, including ideation.

Meet Saskia Cornes and learn about her scholarship at her tgiFHI presentation on Friday, November 9, 2018.

Saskia Cornes lectures at the Duke Campus Farm on the history of regional crops, including sorghum and Brightleaf tobacco. Photo by Dean Rhoades.