Thursday, August 20, 2009

U of I Student Farm produces delicious food, promotes sustainability

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When University of Illinois students at the Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall sit down to a bowl of minestrone this week, they may or may not understand what an extraordinary soup they are eating. They might appreciate the colorful mix of green, orange and red bell peppers, or the fresh ripe tomatoes, or the two types of summer squash that give their meal crunch and zip.

But there’s a story behind those vegetables.

Like much of the produce that will be served in meals at the Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall this year, they were grown on a new student farm operated through the university’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

The farm, which is located off of Lincoln Avenue just south of Windsor Road in Urbana, currently has about two acres in crops. [Photos: (upper) Intern Lauren Williams and volunteer Daniel Schreiber harvest summer squash.(lower) Manager Zack Grant and Williams sort squash.] It began supplying U of I Dining Services with salad greens back in May, and has added to the mix as other crops have matured. The bounty currently includes an abundance of tomatoes, summer squash, sweet corn, herbs, and melons.

According to an estimate by Dawn Aubrey, senior assistant director of Dining Services, over the course of the growing season the student farm will provide somewhere between five and six tons of the food served on campus.

I should emphasize that while one purpose of the student farm is to provide members of the U of I community with “abundant, delicious, locally grown food,” it has other reasons for being, too.

In a small but symbolic way, the student farm helps to reduce the campus carbon footprint by eliminating most of the carbon emissions associated with transporting food. Vegetables grown on the farm travel a mere one and a half miles to where they are consumed, as compared to the 1,500 miles or more that food purchased from another vendor might travel.

More importantly, the farm provides students who might be interested in developing their own fruit and vegetable operations with practical experience. It employs one manager, Zack Grant, who coordinates and oversees the operation, along with two student interns, who assist him. In addition, the farm gathers in a broad group of student volunteers, who contribute labor for planting, weeding, harvesting, and whatever else needs doing. While these volunteers may not go on to careers in agriculture, they gain from their experience on the farm an understanding of the issues involved with producing food in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Crops at the farm are grown using organic methods, which is to say without the use of synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers. But as manager Zack Grant pointed out to me, sustainability is not about simply replacing synthetic pesticides with ones that are derived from plants. Rather, it is about developing a more robust growing system: conserving water and discouraging weeds by means of plastic barriers and mulch, reducing the occurrence of pests through careful planting choices, and building soil fertility through the use of compost and nitrogen-fixing cover crops.

The establishment of the student farm was enabled by funding from the Student Sustainability Committee, which allocates money accumulated through fees that U of I students assess themselves to support projects that promote sustainability. It has also benefited greatly from its collaboration with Dining Services, which has provided considerable financial and material support, as well as a steady market for its products.

With the assurance that market provides, those involved with planning for the student farm anticipate it will expand to ten acres over the next two years, and eventually produce ten percent or more of the fruits and vegetables served on campus. That’s a lot of delicious minestrone, and a real step toward sustainability.

Below you can link to a video on this topic by John E. Marlin from the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of Illinois.

University of Illinois Supplying Cafeterias from New Student Run Farm from ASAP Illinois on Vimeo.