Sustainability Summer 2014

Land Lover

Farm Club president is Green Leader

by Leah Twilley

Youssef Darwich has a lot of plans after he graduates, including going to graduate school and traveling abroad. But ultimately, this second-generation land lover wants to have a farm of his own.

The natural resources management and biology major won the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum Future Green Leaders Scholarship Competition in April. He received a $4,000 scholarship for demonstrating the most innovative and inspirational approach to promoting sustainability.

Darwich, a junior from Hartland, came to Grand Valley with a desire to solve problems. He said that desire has increased since his first year on campus when he explored agriculture as a class writing topic.

“I learned about the detrimental effects conventional agriculture has on the environment, and it didn’t make sense to me that food production had to degrade the land,” Darwich said. “I explored alternatives and found many ways we could actually use agriculture as a means of ecological restoration.”

His interests in sustainable agriculture led him to volunteer at Grand Valley’s Sustainable Agriculture Project, called “the Farm” for short. The project, on Luce Street in Allendale, began with a group of students in 2008 and has expanded to include a variety of initiatives for faculty and staff members and students to learn about sustainable food systems and organic farming practices. He helps the Sustainable Community Development Initiative, which houses the Sustainable Agriculture Project, with maintaining the farm and pursuing funding for new projects.

Youssef Darwich

photo by Amanda Pitts

While spending upwards of 35 hours on the farm every week in the summer, Darwich has gotten to know the space very well and has many ideas for its future, which he presented at the Future Green Leaders Scholarship Competition.

“In my essay, I talked about expanding the Sustainable Ag Project by starting a tree nursery,” he said. “I’ve collected hundreds of seeds on my own, and the Farm Club received funding for 200 more. I proposed planting them in a bed at high densities then transplanting them to difference spots when they get bigger.”

“The growth of the farm has been because of the students all along and Youssef is a prime example of a student who’s been driving interest in the project.”
– Ellen Schendel

Darwich wrote about growing up in urban Dearborn where his father practiced sustainable farming. His father immigrated from Syria when he was 18 years old and brought with him growing practices that allowed Darwich to learn about agriculture from an early age.

“Our backyard was a jungle. We had fruit trees, grape vines, cucumbers, tomatoes and chickens,” he said. “I’ve realized a lot of people don’t have the privilege to interact with our fellow species in a diverse environment like I did while growing up. I understand those benefits and really want to enable others at the farm to experience that richness and satisfaction.”

Ellen Schendel, professor of writing and associate dean of Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies, agreed with Darwich that the Sustainable Agriculture Project is a valuable place to teach and learn. “It’s taken off,” she said. “There’s one sustainable agriculture class that is based completely at the farm, and there are three classes that meet there once a week.

“The growth of the farm has been because of the students all along and Youssef is a prime example of a student who’s been driving interest in the project.”

Darwich said his recognition would not be possible without the support of his professors and Farm Club friends. “I think being recognized for what I’ve done is only a testament for what everyone can do if they have a strong, supportive community surrounding them,” he said.

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