It was a prophetic spring in 1998 when a group of students started a composting program, taking all the dining hall’s kitchen scraps and mixing them with mulch form the grounds department to make compost. Initial composting efforts were messy, and students would draw straws to see who would turn the compost with a pair of stilts they’d built for that very purpose. They ended up with rich, fertile compost and started planting beds and fruit trees in an empty lot in the southeast corner of campus. Soon students and folks from the Claremont area started gravitating towards the space, and it became a center for community, sustainable living and permaculture farming practice. However, the core group of founding students soon left Claremont for the summer, leaving the farm to a self-appointed and (the first) dedicated farm summer intern. He watered the farm with one massive hand-made sprinkler, keeping the harsh, dry summer at bay. However when the students returned the weeds had taken over and established themselves with thick, woody stalks all over the farm. Getting the weeds cleared was a sweaty struggle that involved many broken tools and eventually a rented rototiller. But among the bramble and grass, there was a single tomato plant that had survived, and had born fruit to a single tomato fruit, small and ripe, it hung on the vine like a treasure. There was hope after all! The single tomato that survived was such a wild wondrous thing that the students were spurred to continue the project and keep working on the farm.
The first few years mostly consisted of planting whole fields of clover to fix nitrogen and digging rocks out of the soil (the notorious “Claremont Potatoes”). The farm community kept taking space and establishing its presence on campus. It became a locus for political activity, where students would gather to paint banners and amass before political action on campus. People were sleeping under a bush, cooking, making music, and generally living down at the farm. The administration didn’t know the extent to the land’s occupation and soon found themselves encountering a rich, vibrant community built around a now almost-farm in that abandoned corner of campus. It was supported under the guise of the Gorilla Farming Club and funded by the ASPC, the associated students of Pomona College. Over concerns about safety and substance use, the Administration attempted to “relocate” the farm or shut it down entirely.
Thus began a long string of meeting between the students and the administration, with petitions, speeches and other actions that generally constituted the Save the Farm movement on campus. There was enough pressure from students, community and a few visionary faculty members that the school relented and allowed for the continuation of the farm under a set of strict use guidelines. The farm was eventually incorporated into the Environmental Analysis Program (EA) in 2005 with the hire of a part-time Farm Manager and the inception of the first full course taught at the Farm (EA 85). This class also began work on a second half of the Farm, which was originally known as the Academic Field.
In the throes of this period, students became inspired by Nader Khalili’s superadobe earth dome designs they were exposed to as part of a sustainable building class, and began a project to build the farm’s own dome. In the summer of 2002, the first earth dome was constructed, built to be small enough to not require permitting from the City of Claremont. However, the Administration still had lingering safety concerns about the structure and fenced it off and bulldozed it on the first day of class in the Fall of 2002. In April 2003, the second earth dome project was started, with funding from Ronald Fleming ’63 and an allocation from the president of the college. Work began that summer and the second dome was completed almost a year later, due to the labor of volunteers and students in a sustainable building class under the guidance of Geordie Schuurman ’99, who had been involved in building the first dome and was one of the original farm founders in 1998.
Today, the older portion of the Farm is known as the “West Farm” and the newer portion of the Farm is called the “East Farm.” Together, both spaces occupy only about 1.1 acres of land, but are host to over 200 fruit trees, many chickens, a few beehives, the campus composting system, the Earth Dome, a greenhouse, dozens of plots, and over 50 production-oriented crop rows (see here for more information about our facilities).
Thousands of people interact with the Farm and its programs each year, including hundreds of students who visit the Farm for a course lecture or laboratory exercise, to volunteer, to work, or just to relax in a peaceful, natural setting. Hundreds more community members, including groups from the Draper Center and local organizations like Uncommon Good, join with students to learn and take care of the Farm’s plant and animal life. Hundreds more faculty and staff members from all of the Claremont Colleges incorporate the Farm into their courses, work alongside students and community to tend plots, or just stop by every now and then to grab a sprig of basil.
The Farm’s mission is to give students, faculty, and staff of the Claremont Colleges and local community members a hands-on education in various methods of small-scale ecological farming in scientific, social, and organizational terms. The Farm strives to be a transdisciplinary space supporting the academic and non-academic values of a liberal arts education.
For more info on the history of the farm, please feel free to peruse the online Farm Archive established through the Claremont Colleges Library, or stop by and check out the history board across from the chalkboard on the West Side entrance.