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One Year With Airlie Center

How an AU-owned farm in Virginia could produce the potatoes you eat in TDR

By Kimberly Cataudella | 12/5/17 8:22am
George Gu / American Word Magazine

An hour and fifteen minutes of navigating through city traffic, past highway road signs and through a seemingly never-ending, grass-surrounded road leads one to American University’s future satellite campus. Black cows meander around their enormous, grass pens. Horses nibble on hay bales. Adirondack chairs overlook ponds, sunbeams shimmering over the wind-induced ripple of the blue water.

Strange to think that American’s downtown-DC college campus could be paired with such a postcard-perfect scene located a little over an hour away, right?

In September of 2016, AU received a 300-acre property donation called “Airlie Center,” located in Warrenton, Va. Aside from being a farm with an on-site organic garden, the property contains a building called “Airlie House,” a location for Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights strategy meetings (among other activists) in the 1960s and 70s.

According to the Washington Business Journal, the Airlie Board of Directors gifted Airlie Center — valued at $15 million — to AU instead of selling the property, which was the original plan.

One year after Airlie Center donated its property, faculty members of AU and affiliates with Airlie are working to see how the space can become an active learning center for students.

Students may be able to see Airlie Center building dorms for AU students studying at the facility in Warrenton, composting the organic waste thrown out at AU’s main campus and harvesting produce to be served in the Terrace Dining Room.

Plans for the Future AU and Airlie

Airlie Center mass-produces potatoes on its farm, and AU hopes to get those on students’ plates in TDR.

“There’s lots to be said about knowing your product from start to finish,” said Chuck Smith, executive director at Airlie. “We have harvested about 40,000 pounds of potatoes, and we’ve donated lots to the local food bank. We hope to take [produce] from the farm to dining services at AU.”

Kiho Kim, academic liaison with Airlie Center and a professor in the department of environmental science, hopes that students will independently study food security and organic farming with the facilities that Airlie has to offer.

“We want to eventually build dorms [on Airlie’s property],” Kim said. “We’re still looking at what’s possible to use on the infrastructure and figure out what will be of interest to our students. Once we have that, we will begin serious programming from there.”

Larry Engel, academic liaison through Airlie and an associate professor in the School of Communication, hopes that AU can soon create “the Airlie semester.”

“Maybe the students could hands-on study sustainability or learn about environmental documentary filmmaking through ‘the Airlie semester,’” Engel said. “The semester isn’t just restricted to SOC and environmental science; it includes SIS and other schools if they find a way to be a part of it.”

Kim said that if students wanted to stay overnight right now, they would be paying at least $150 per night. Once students get excited about Airlie and the learning possibilities with which it provides scholars, AU can begin looking into outside donors and contributors from its alumni population and beyond.

“We have to create the vision first and some semblance of its importance before we ask for financial contributions,” Kim said.

The organic farm on Airlie’s property is used more for demonstration and experimental purposes, and AU hopes to have students performing their own experiments on the pesticide-free plants. The flowers at Airlie support pollinators and allow the facility to make use of the aviaries (or beekeeping structures) on site, Kim said.


Tyler Orton, zero waste manager from Facilities Management, hopes that Airlie will provide another space to compost AU’s organic waste. If this were to happen, Airlie could use the soil that it makes on its own property and maybe send some of it back to be used on AU’s campus.

“The main issue with anything waste-related is transporting it, and we’d have to cross state lines to get to Airlie,” Orton said.

The composting cycle gives back to the earth, so every piece of organic waste thrown into the landfill is a missed opportunity to better the environment.

The composted banana peel gets broken down into soil, then AU buys back the soil from our composting facility in Prince George’s County and uses it on campus.

Students must recognize that they have a direct impact on the environment just from they waste they throw out, said Grace Pugh, co-president of the Zero Waste Club and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The sustainability factor of Airlie made American want to make the property its own all the more. Having a farm in DC’s backyard allows AU the ability to continue making environmentally-friendly decisions when it comes to conserving energy and resources.

“We want the students to be engaged in the food production process,” Kim said. “We’d like to see students out there to be a part of growing food and bringing it back to AU or donating it to DC kitchens or food banks in Warrington county. We’re starting with [an experimental] group of faculty and staff, but that conversation will expand [to students] so we make can Airlie Center into a satellite campus.”


Airlie Center was the location at which Earth Day was born, MLK came up with his idea for marching in peaceful protest and eight Emmy-winning environmental films were created, making Airlie a relevant place for American University students, Engel said.

“With MLK meeting there to discuss civil rights with other members of the movement, the space relates to AU students more than we thought it would,” Engel said. “Also, Earth Day was basically created at Airlie in 1970, and we’re coming up on the fiftieth anniversary in 2020. This is a critical part of history.”

Engel and Kim both believe that these social and environmental justice movements will inspire donors to monetarily contribute to the opportunities that AU hopes to offer to students through Airlie.

Airlie Center chose AU as its donation recipient because of the institution’s mission: ideas into action, action into service.

“It was a mission that they found very similar to theirs,” Kim said. “We have aspirations to turn Airlie and all of its history — which is really relevant to our students and to our institution into a campus, and we want students’ input and engagement throughout the process.”