Convocation panelists remain optimistic about Zena’s future

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Since news broke in February that farming would discontinue at Willamette University’s property at Zena, people have wondered, “What’s up with Zena?”

On April 2, about 50 students, faculty and staff gathered for convocation in Cone Chapel to find out.

Panelists included Joe Abraham, director of the Sustainability Institute and Zena Forest; Kyle Batisky ’15, president of Zena Farm Club; and Wendy Petersen Boring, a member of the Sustainability Institute Advisory Board.

Together, they discussed the recent controversy surrounding land use at Zena and a shared optimism about the property’s future.

Exploring the Possibilities

Zena Farm, run by students, is part of Willamette’s 305-acre property in the Eola Hills, 11 miles northwest of Salem. Since 2009, roughly one acre has been in production, growing vegetables and fruit for distribution on campus.

But in February, discrepancies surrounding the use of the land and the conservation easement at Zena led to the farm’s temporary closure.

According to a statement released by Dean Marlene Moore and Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Monica Rimai, the university is working with a land use attorney to help resolve legal issues with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which administers the land. They’re striving to negotiate a management plan for the property that adheres to the BPA’s requirements.

However, until the BPA responds with clarifying guidelines of how the land can and cannot be used, some programs are on hold — including the planting of crops and the Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture.

The six-week, two-credit program has relied on the farmhouse for living and classroom space. For safety reasons, the house was shuttered this past fall.

Responding to the Closure

As Zena is currently used for everything from academic programs to yoga club excursions, the campus community reacted strongly to this change and disruption of the farm’s momentum, Batisky says.

When Farm Club members circulated a petition to support food production at Zena, they received more than 200 signatures within 12 hours — before the petition hit a single list-serve, Boring says.

She says this shows food production is valued by many people on campus. She’s confident food production activities will continue at Willamette, whether at Zena or another location.

“We are at a place of maximum possibility,” she says.

President Steve Thorsett agrees, saying the Willamette community should think proactively.

“I encourage people to think creatively about all the things we can do,” he says. “Even if there are a few things that are frustrating at the moment.”

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