Agriculture is a 9.72 billion-dollar industry in Mississippi. Soy, cotton, and corn rank as one of the most lucrative cash crops in the state, with about 3.35 million acres harvested in 2022. “Mississippi Agriculture Snapshot.” Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, 11 Jan. 2023, https://www.mdac.ms.gov/agency-info/mississippi-agriculture-snapshot/.
For nearly a decade, Mississippi has ranked as America’s hungriest state. Nearly 19 percent of its citizens—about 600,000 people—face food insecurity, including one in four children. This catastrophe is not the fault of geography. Agriculture serves as the state’s main industry, with about 34,700 farms operating across 10.4 million acres of fertile soil. The fault principally lies in a long history of exploitation, from the arrival of settler colonialists who identified its promise and built some of the South’s largest plantations to the continued privileging of crops grown for profit, like soy and hay, which perpetuates the legacy of slavery.
In his fall 2022 studio, “The Paradox of Hunger—Rural Mississippi,” Design Critic in Architecture Cory Henry asked students to examine this crisis and investigate what mitigating role architecture and design could play. “In Mississippi, you have some of the most arable land in the country,” says Henry. “Over 30 percent of the state is farmland—a percentage which is growing—but the state consistently ranks as one of the most food insecure in the country.”
In Mississippi, you have some of the most arable land in the country,” says Henry. “Over 30 percent of the state is farmland—a percentage which is growing—but the state consistently ranks as one of the most food insecure in the country.
That land has attracted numerous out-of-state investment funds as well as wealthy Americans. It was only for sale, however, after being stolen from Black and Indigenous people, sometimes with the help of abusive policies. In these instances, profit motivates more than feeding local people: only 45,000 of those 10.4 million acres are devoted to fruits and vegetables. “A farmer told me that Mississippi farms value the green dollar more than the green for sustenance,” says Henry. As a result, the state imports most of its produce, which in turn is difficult for many to access due to a dearth of grocery stores. Dollar Generals, which do not sell fresh produce, are often the nearest source of food, particularly in rural areas.
This condition contradicts the dream Laurence C. Jones had in 1909 when he founded the Piney Woods School, the nation’s second oldest continuously operating Black boarding school, located about 21 miles southeast of Jackson. Jones’s mission was to teach formerly enslaved people not just how to read but also about food sovereignty. “We educate for the head, the heart, and the hands” remains a foundational motto. Occupying approximately 2,000 acres, about 10 percent of which is farmland, the school became an ideal case study for Henry’s students to translate their research on the multipronged roots of food insecurity into a concrete intervention at a specific site.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many of the country’s structural inequalities that already existed. These include how Black, non-Hispanic households are twice as likely to be food insecure,” says Henry. “I wanted students to understand the agency of our design disciplines—that we must understand the socioeconomic conditions of a place in order to have meaningful change—and to explore ways in which design thinking can create opportunities for food sovereignty.
Younger Americans do not gravitate toward farming careers. According to the 2017 census, the average age of a Mississippi farmer is 60. At Piney Woods specifically, the farm today carries punitive associations, with students sent there as a form of discipline. Altering these impressions requires creating a new relationship between the youth and the natural environment—one that emphasizes joy and excitement rather than obligation.
Avi Robinson (MArch ’23) and Supriya Ambwani (MLA ’23) understood that inculcating a positive connection to farming will not arise from harsh prescriptions, particularly for high schoolers and especially those in communities with an acute awareness of the history of slavery. Freedom—of choice, movement, and program—resonates throughout their design. “Spaces often tell you what you can or cannot do,” says Robinson. “The more nondescript spaces are, the more flexibility you have.”
Utilizing inexpensive materials such as plywood and employing ancient techniques like rammed earth, the pair emphasized minimalist simplicity. At the site of the existing barn, for instance, they retained the original structure but added a variation of terraced farming inspired by farms in South Africa, with plots arrayed throughout a series of long, arched passages that are enclosed in chain-link fences. This expansion created room for a kitchen, where food from the farm can be taken directly and either stored or served, making an alternative to the cafeteria. Guided by the impulse not to demarcate aspects of the plan as being strictly focused on sustainability, waste, design, or any other narrow concept, the complex becomes multiuse in a way that makes the food cycle more legible.
Hybridity is emphasized further in the new makerspace, which includes a woodshop, classroom, computer lab, library, and drawing studio. It acts as a center for hands-on learning, such as the construction of goat sheds which house the herd that provides fertilizer. The frame of the makerspace partially echoes the sloping arches of the new barn complex. And as with the chain-link roofs in the barn, the porousness of the building’s multistory, floor-to-ceiling windows establish an attachment to the land, even for those uninterested in this work.
But the flexibility of Robinson and Ambwani’s design encourages students to use these spaces in ways both related and unrelated to farming—whether doing homework or just hanging out. It also positions Piney Woods as a site of inspiration for schools and institutions in Mississippi and beyond, with plans that are more widely adaptable than rigidly defined spaces. “I wanted to find ingredients that people could use,” explains Robinson. “What you see are the current needs of Piney Woods. But this is an entry point, a recipe book, about how to mix things together to address, in any specific situation, both food and education.”
Christian Behling (MArch II ’24) and Gabriel Schmid (MArch II ’24) saw the campus as bifurcated, with the “hands,” represented by the farm, lacking both a material and positive emotional connection to the “head,” represented by the academic buildings. In order to join the two, they designed a boardwalk that functions as a kind of spine across campus. Made of light-frame pine to respect the school’s history of building with on-site materials, it begins at the original schoolhouse and the grave of Laurence Jones, passes by Jones’s house, and then integrates with the farmland and historic barn. “We want this to be a physical path, a formal procession,” says Behling, who is sensitive to the importance of not imposing an entirely new history on the site but rather being in dialogue with its celebrated past.
Consideration for the past also concerns cross-generational respect. Behling and Schmid’s plan facilitates formal and informal mentorships between farmers and students to support new generations of farmers. Programmatically, this takes the form of a farmer living on campus in the newly designed dormitories. Accessed from the boardwalk, these buildings utilize Southern vernacular forms, such as the shotgun house and the wraparound porch. “There’s an important lack of social and spatial hierarchy between the different spaces in the dormitories, with private bedrooms and shared spaces all connected through a procession of doors. There are no hallways,” explains Behling.
Near the dormitories, each student is provided a small plot to manage. Behling and Schmid believe these should be given without assignments or expectations. “We had an idealistic idea that if each student has a little piece of the school of which they are in charge, it will make them more invested in the mission that the school is trying to promote,” says Behling. Whether they grow food, put in a trampoline, or let it grow wild, the plot remains their own. “It fully embraces the entrepreneurial aspirations the school already promotes.”
These plots are not the only means by which students can learn about a circular system of resources, in contrast to the current model in Mississippi in which crops like soy are largely exported for processing. The new woodshop and makerspace will educate them about the process of growing wood, milling, and making furniture or other resources. The same is true for a new test and production kitchen, where students can learn about culinary practices and make food products, like preserves, that can be supplied to the surrounding community. In the short term, Behling and Schmid believe this exchange could take place at Piney Woods farm stands constructed in the parking lots of the closest Dollar General stores, with similar architecture to that found on campus so as to pull the campus beyond its property.
Mariama Kah (MArch II ’24) and Shant Charoian (MArch II ’23) also saw the agricultural sciences as being disconnected from the rest of the school, with physical relics dotting the campus serving as a reminder of its original ethos. They were reluctant to make any changes to the site, however small. As a result, their respect for the past became a focus on repair. “We were very cognizant that this is a historic campus which is very proud of its history,” says Kah. “We wanted to touch the ground very lightly, so we decided to take an adaptive reuse stance rather than do anything invasive which takes over the campus.”
In an effort to subvert the notion of agriculture as an extractive force, Kah and Charoian looked at a speciality crop that leaves a small footprint and requires minimal space and labor: mushrooms. The opportunity for financial returns from mushroom farming is high, with a projected annual revenue of $62,000 per year for the school. Evoking another of the school’s mottos—“Land as laboratory”—this initiative could then be used to make Piney Woods a magnet for agricultural research and study. “It would become an opportunity for fellowships and engagement with local farmers and universities. It would give it power through economics as well as education,” says Kah.
To further this goal, and in keeping with their anti-interventionist philosophy, Kah and Charoian propose to turn the back end of Iowa Hall, a building that had fallen into disuse but which is slated to become a chemistry lab, into an agronomy studies and mushroom laboratory. Like their peers, they understood the importance of multiuse spaces, especially for a centrally located space like this. Surrounding the laboratory are revived basketball courts, porches and other extensions overlooking the campus, a sunken student plaza, and additional spaces that create moments for gathering.
We did not want to be an imposition on the legacies that exist but rather create space and ground them, to allow them to continue into the future.
These sites address the students’ desire to have more time to enjoy nature, which Kah and Charoian learned through a game in which the teens were asked how they connected with the green spaces in their lives. The pair responded to these concerns elsewhere, too. At the barn, they followed the gables of the original roof to create shading moments as well as classrooms, established two laboratories for animal research, and introduced spots for levity and community at the top of the silos, with panoramic views of the farm. The community garden was commandeered to include a food-nutrition lab and student kitchen, while a cabin near the water, a favorite leisure space for students, also features a water- and soil-testing lab. What was once forgotten or given less attention now has a new sense of prominence.
“The intention of the project is for Piney Woods to become the center for agricultural research and ecological study in Mississippi. The space would be used for research through fellowships and partnership, as well as for the teaching of students, who could then see themselves doing agricultural work in the future,” says Kah. But, for her, that must not come at the expense of the architecture already present: just as crops have multigenerational lives and their successful harvesting requires the passing down of knowledge, design at this site cannot ignore the past in an effort to change the future. We did not want to be an imposition on the legacies that exist but rather create space and ground them, to allow them to continue into the future,” Kah continues. “We thought of our additions of these agricultural laboratories as another link in the chain of the school’s history rather than a top-down approach of saying how things should be.