Professor Charlotte Clark never thought an assignment in her course would lead to Duke’s own sustainable farm.

A visiting assistant professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Clark was teaching Environment 171: “Food and Energy” last Spring when students conceived of the idea of the Duke University Campus Farm. When groups of five students were given questions provided by on-campus dining clients, one team was asked whether the University should consider having its own farm, Clark said.

A year of planning and searching for funding later, the farm planted its first acre of seeds Sunday opposite the Carolina Friends School—the first step in the students’ movement to promote food sustainability on campus. Bon Appetit Management Company, which runs on-campus venues including the Great Hall and the Marketplace, has agreed to buy all of the food that the farm produces and will serve some of it in its venues on campus. The products include salad greens, sweet potatoes and tomatoes, said junior Michael Bernert, a member of the farm’s founding leadership team.

“I thought that the students would just do a feasibility study, but they went much further than that,” Clark said.

The students met with the manager of the Duke Forest and received a 12-acre plot of land for free, Clark said. A $14,000 grant from the Students Taking an Active Role in Sustainability committee, a group that allocates funds to projects related to Duke, has helped cover costs of preparing the land and purchasing crops.

If the crops grow as expected, the food should be ready by mid-April, said farm project manager Emily Sloss, Trinity ’10. She described the farm’s goals as two-fold: to produce and provide fresh local sustainable food to campus dining halls and to provide an educational facility for students and faculty to learn about farming and food.

“You shouldn’t wonder, ‘What am I eating and where did it come from?’” Sloss said. “The farm will help students have a better understanding of what they’re eating and how that’s affecting their health. It will also make them think about food’s impact on the environment and social issues, like farm workers’ rights.”

Bernert also sees the farm as a key component in the battle for food sustainability.

“Look at the high use of pesticides, the obesity trend in children and the high intake of fructose corn syrup in food,” Bernert said, listing recently-developing food issues. “The costs associated with these things are increasing at an exponential rate right now, and changes have to happen. The farm can help drive these changes.”

Several other schools, such as Cornell and Yale universities, have also opened campus farms. Sloss said she believes that an increased interest in the food process has created this movement to cultivate university-sponsored farms.

“More and more of our food is becoming processed and synthetic, and it has become food that we don’t understand what it is or what it’s doing in our body,” Sloss said. “We [talked] about these issues in class, but there’s become this realization that we could learn about these issues ourselves by growing it ourselves.”