Editor’s note: People of UW is a weekly series produced by Features Associates. The series — published online and on our social media accounts — aims to highlight a student at UW making an impact on the campus community. These Q&As are lightly edited for clarity and style.
After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ava Padilla began gardening through the student organization F.H. King, uncovering her passion for teaching and strengthening her appreciation for non-human organisms.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Ava Padilla. I am currently in my last semester at the University of Wisconsin studying botany. My academic interests are pretty broad as are most of my interests. My studies in botany encompass plants, including many wonderful organisms like fungi and algae.
Additionally, I have explored studies in costume design and French. Before my job with F.H. King, I worked as a tutor, which helped ignite my love for teaching. I also really love art specifically, three-dimensional work like metals, sculpture and beadwork. I’m a self-taught beadwork artist. I enjoy creating jewelry from random ideas inspired by organic shapes and forms captured in botany.
What is F.H. King and how did you first get involved?
F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture is an organization inspired by soil scientist, F.H. King that focuses on providing services to other students. At the heart of our organization, we focus on our mission statement: connecting people, land and food on the UW campus. Our half-acre farm with a beautiful garden is located in Eagle Heights, right off the 80 bus line. After spending an entire summer working in the garden, it feels like a bit of home every time I go there.
We really try to grow organically using natural methods of pest control to take better care of the land, [particularly] focusing on sustainable efforts in agriculture. All the produce grown in the garden is given to students for free. This past year, we totaled roughly 4,000 pounds of product which was really impressive.
In addition to the fun space, we have a lot of workshops in programming. These events can occur through a series of guest speakers who specialize in various areas like dairy farming or art-related events. It really is open to whatever the student body is interested in.
I found my way to F.H. King when I was a freshman but didn’t join until my junior year. Initially, I applied because I was volunteering at the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Gardens located alongside the F.H. King farm. At the time, I was frustrated with the state of the world and was searching for a positive outlet. With time to work in the garden on my hands, I applied for my job.
I am really grateful that I got involved with F.H. King in the manner that I did— it was so hard to focus on school. For me personally, having a small community of lovely coworkers who are passionate about food systems brought me joy. I’m really glad I stuck with it.
What is your position with FH King now?
My tasks as one of the few farm directors vary depending on the season, but it’s a year-round job that extends past the academic year. Right now, my coworker and I are compiling a garden guidebook. Essentially, we record [everything] we know and learned from the previous season to reference in the future.
Come February, we start growing all the seedlings that will be used as transplants in the garden. In March, we start preparing the garden beds and leading workshops with other people since ripping out weeds and getting the soil ready for a new season can be a hefty task.
In the early season, we transplant and carefully nurture seedlings. Harvest occurs in May and June, but the season can extend into October depending on how warm it is. During this time, we also have harvest handouts where we give out all our produce weekly throughout that growing season.
All in all, most of my work encompasses planning for the next season and recording everything that we did. Recording is such a beautiful process because it makes you reflect on what worked well and how you overcame challenges. For me, it’s a process of realizing the significance and impressive quality of some of the tasks we completed.
After graduation, how do you want to impact the world with your studies and experiences through involvement with F.H. King?
In a straightforward manner, I want to continue to see and teach people how to garden. I would love to get more involved with environmental education.
It is really special to interact with other people and witness those moments of connection with plants and other non-human organisms. Potentially, that desire could manifest very directly with food but even more so with academic sciences.
Why is F.H. King a vital organization for the University of Wisconsin campus?
First of all, it’s cool. But, we also provide a really unique service through the deliverance of fresh produce and the education opportunities we create. Our wonderful workshops and spaces help people learn about [how] gardening and farming are so accessible.
One thing I’ve noticed is that not a lot of young people want to go into farming because it is a really tough job. On a campus full of young people who potentially have never had the privilege of interacting with a garden space, it is really special to make something accessible to people for the first time in their lives.
Through F.H. King, there is a reframing of what it really means to farm and garden. As a kid, I grew up in an urban city but had access to a gardening space and a father who enjoyed gardening too. I just want people to have the opportunity to enter that space as well.
What is your favorite part about your work in F.H. King?
The free food is fantastic, but on a philosophical note, I am in awe of how much there is for me to learn from the people that I am surrounded by. Whether it is peers or mentors from F.H. King, the opportunity to always learn is something I really enjoy.
How would your life or college experience be different had you never joined F.H. King?
My life would have been much duller for sure. I would not know myself as well as I know myself today. This job has been challenging yet very worthwhile.
I got to express myself in a position of leadership which is something I could have never anticipated. I have led workshops, taken on challenging projects and made really big mistakes. Having people to support me through all of those instances has been a really good experience. Without that strong sense of community, I would not have found a way to grow and flourish.
I would not hold the same sense of pride in my own capabilities and the capabilities of my peers. This place feels more like home because of F.H. King. Especially working on the Ho-Chunk land in Eagle Heights, you can really feel how special that place is. I would not have the same connection with that land and Madison as a whole without F.H. King.