Section: News

Kenyon farmers protest end of the residential program

Kenyon farmers protest end of the residential program

Over 50 community members joined the farmers in protest. | COURTESY OF JAMES MAZER

The Kenyon farmers, in conjunction with other members of the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC), held a picket on Saturday to protest the College’s recent elimination of the Farm’s residential program. More than 50 community members joined. 

Subsequently, on Tuesday, the farmers and members of K-SWOC met with Provost Jeff Bowman and President Sean Decatur to discuss the College’s decision to disband the residential program — their first conversation since the decision was announced. 

On Wednesday, Bowman told the Collegian that the College would not reconsider its decision at this time. 

The picket took place just days after the College announced that it would end its signature residential program at the Farm. Founded in 2012, the Farm currently houses four resident student farmers, with two additional student farmers living on campus.

In the days prior to the picket, the Kenyon farmers, all of whom are members of K-SWOC, garnered community support in protest of the College’s actions by circulating a petition, which, as of Wednesday, has amassed over 1,300 signatures. 

At Saturday’s picket, several Kenyon farmers gave testimonials, explaining the role the Farm has played in shaping their time at Kenyon and expressing their concerns that eliminating the residential program would detrimentally affect the College community. 

“We’re basically picketing in order to demand that this decision gets reversed, and that we will be part of the decision-making process as to what the Farm looks like in the future,” said Lynn Butzlaff ’22, a Kenyon farmer who has lived and worked at the Farm since her sophomore year. 

Jack Cheston ’22, too, explained the importance of the Farm in shaping his Kenyon experience and expressed his concerns about how eliminating the program could impact the Kenyon community.

“I feel like all the good parts of Kenyon, all the things that I thought I was going to get when I came here and all the things I eventually did get are slowly being chipped away,” he said. “I think that’s not right. I’m not going to let that happen.”

Kenyon farmer Molly Orr ’24 — who also spoke on Saturday — expressed her dismay with the College’s decision. She said the Kenyon farmers and other K-SWOC members are concerned that the College’s decision was a way to stifle workplace agency for student workers on campus. “It’s about us, it’s about the future farmers, but it’s also about workplace agency for all student workers,” she said. “Which is why we’re not just asking for the residential program to be reinstated. We’re asking for a wall-to-wall student worker union.”

K-SWOC member Sally Smith ’23 reiterated these claims, saying that K-SWOC members from other campus workplaces joining the farmers in the picket was a way to protest the College’s resistance to attempts by student workers to obtain union recognition and workplace agency, as well as other work-related issues raised by the Kenyon farmers. 

Smith explained that disbanding the residential program would be something that unionization amongst student workers would have been able to prevent. “This kind of unilateral change would not have been able to go into effect,” she said. “If they worked under a union contract, they were able to negotiate the terms of their employment.” 

According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) website, once an employer has agreed on a labor contract with their employees, they may not “deviate from its terms without the other party’s consent.” 

Orr argued that a union would provide students with institutionalized workplace agency, which would prohibit student employees from being subjected to changes in their terms of employment without consultation. She was also one of the Kenyon farmers who speculated that the College’s decision to eliminate the residential program could be a punitive measure for student workers on campus attempting to unionize, especially amid K-SWOC’s petition with the NLRB to hold a union certification election. 

“I think any change to student labor on campus in the midst of an NLRB election process has to be understood in that context,” she said. “I don’t think that retaliation as a concept is out of the question.” 

Cheston agreed. “We’re in the middle of an NLRB election process and this amounts to cutting our hours in half,” he said. According to Cheston, residential farmers currently work 20 hours per week while those not living on the property work only 10 hours. 

Yet, Orr maintains that she does not believe the College was specifically targeting the farmers, but instead thinks that the decision to eliminate the Farm’s residential program was a strategic move to limit student worker agency in the wake of K-SWOC’s calls for student worker unionization. 

Bowman, however, refuted claims of retaliation. “The College has not and will not retaliate against students who have participated in union organizing activities,” he wrote in an email to the Collegian. He also said that he respected the picketers for exercising their right to protest peacefully. 

Following the protest, the farmers were made aware of a claim made by Vice President for Academic Affairs Delaney Gallagher ’23 during a Student Council meeting on Sunday, Jan. 30. According to Gallagher, Bowman said the College had consulted with Kenyon farmers before making their decision to eliminate the residential program. 

Butzlaff disputed this claim. “I can 100% for sure say that they did not consult us at all about this decision,” she said. “They informed [Cheston] after the decision had already been made. So we were in no way part of that decision-making process.”

Subsequently, the Kenyon farmers sent an all-employee email addressed directly to Bowman, claiming that neither Bowman nor any other administrator had informed them of the decision prior to it being announced. “We are confused to read this because we cannot recall a time that we spoke to you or anyone else about the possibility of the residential program ending prior to being told that decision was final,” the email read. 

In the same email, the Kenyon farmers mentioned they had not heard back from other members of the administration, including Decatur, regarding their request to have their questions answered in a private setting.

On Monday, Bowman and Decatur agreed to hold a closed-door meeting with Farm workers and volunteers, which took place on Tuesday afternoon. Community Advisors also attended and  raised concerns about the recent change from hourly wages to a stipend model. While the meeting was initially called to discuss the College’s decision to eliminate the residential program, it also attempted to rectify the communication rift between the College and the farmers. According to Cheston, the meeting failed to resolve that issue. 

It is still unclear why Bowman said he had consulted the farmers. 

“I basically felt like I was being given non-answer after non-answer,” Cheston wrote in an email to the Collegian. “And I felt incredibly disrespected. They did not have answers to our questions. They weren’t even prepared really. They wanted to brush us aside.” According to Cheston, Decatur could not remember if he thought to consult students before making the decision. 

It is also unclear how the College will utilize the Farm or its farmhouse after the residential program ends later this semester. 

However, the Kenyon farmers claim that the College plans to replace the existing resident farmer positions — of which there are typically between four and six — with a single post-baccalaureate fellow, similar to the position at the Brown Family Environmental Center (BFEC). 

Bowman has said that the College currently has no plan in place for the Farm, including who will maintain the grounds and care for the livestock without a residential program. He told the Collegian that the College will decide its fate with input from the Offices of Green Initiatives and Residential Life, as well as from students involved with the Farm.

Staff writer Noah Gerhardt contributed to reporting.

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