A group of incoming School of Natural Resources and Environment students had barely begun working when the first lessons, albeit informal ones, happened.
“This is in the beet family. Do you have beets in China,” one student named Laura asked a classmate who had inquired about the shiny, bright green, red and pink leaves of Swiss chard the students were harvesting.
“How about this one,” another student asked, seeking clarification on instructions not to worry about gathering the few leafy vegetables that had been chomped on to an extreme by insects.
On this day at the University of Michigan farm, the group from SNRE and another from the Law School were on hand to pick produce that was to be shared with the local Food Gatherers. At the end of the day, the farm turned over more than 400 pounds of the chard, kale, eggplant, peppers, squash and other vegetables to the organization that provides food for area families with need.
Volunteers snipped, packed and washed the vegetables that had been planted and cared for throughout the season by numerous students, staff and faculty.
Over the last year and a half, classes, groups and individuals have come to the 2-acre plot at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens to work, even before a single seed or plant was placed in the ground.
Volunteers helped design the space, plow the overgrowth of weeds, construct some raised beds, and build up the soil so things could grow. They established plants over the winter in a greenhouse, and once vegetables and herbs were planted kept the organic garden weeded and, as naturally as possible, pest free. They also helped care for the resident bees in an apiary built by one of the early volunteer teams.
Bekah Kreckman, College of Literature, Science and the Arts program in the environment undergraduate, worked in the greenhouse over the winter, digging out old dirt and replacing it with healthy soil, then helping to nurture the plants that would be transplanted in spring.
“I have a really passionate interest in food systems, and I think that starts with the growing of food. I like that I can see how the food is grown, how it starts and how it ends up in our hands,” said Kreckman, who tasted her first radish at the campus farm. “The whole experience, every time I come out here has been wonderful. Each time there’s something new to appreciate.”
Parker Anderson, SNRE graduate student earning a dual master’s degree in landscape architecture and sustainable systems, helps recruit and supervise volunteers.
“That’s been my goal. To connect people with this space and, hopefully, the campus farm will become institutionalized at the University of Michigan,” Anderson said.
“I feel we’re all connected by food. And we’re trying to do it in a way here that minimizes negative impact on the environment. We’re trying to grow the space and build the soil. We’re trying to create a surplus of food in a way that’s not damaging to the environment.”
The farm in this space is new, started before the planting season of 2012 as an outgrowth of an earlier initiative by students, faculty and staff who were interested in sustainable food systems. Originally Sustainable Food Program participants got involved with agricultural initiatives in Detroit, worked on food composting in campus dining halls, and grew food in small spaces throughout campus. But the groups’ goals were bigger than the space available, so the program was invited to move to east Ann Arbor to take over what had been a research space at the botanical gardens.
Today the Sustainable Food Program is the mother organization for 10 groups that look at many aspects of food and organize programming at the farm.
“Students have been the major drivers behind what we’re doing,” said Robert Grese, director of the gardens and the Nichols Arboretum, and Theodore Roosevelt Professor of Ecosystem Management. “There were several classes of students who helped develop plans for the farm. Last summer there was a group that started a small food plot that was the initial part of the farm. Since then, we’ve hired two summer interns, and with student volunteers, they’ve really helped to make this farm functional.”
Anderson is one of the interns and the other is Meaghan Guckian, SNRE behavior, education and communication master’s student.
“I have a lot of hopes and aspirations for this space. Long term I want it to be a resource and an area for students to restore and get their hands dirty, but also to use it educationally,” Guckian said. “It’s not necessarily just about growing food: It’s about growing community and relationships among different disciplines on campus.”
Grese said Planet Blue, U-M’s sustainability program, and the Third Century Initiative, a university effort to encourage engaged learning experiences, provided funding to allow the interns to be hired, to support the programming, and to encourage the development of learning experiences.
“The farm actually has a lot of opportunities for both research projects with individual faculty members and students, and also having courses come out here.” said Mariel Borgman, SNRE graduate student in behavior, education and communication. She serves as an academic ambassador, trying to help faculty understand how the farm can be a resource for their courses, and to develop classroom collaborations.
“Some people might not understand how a farm could have anything to do with their courses, but food systems is a huge animal.” Borgman said, adding that it touches finance, ecology, sociology and more.
Faculty who have embraced the idea of teaching at the farm have been from various disciplines: architecture and urban planning, engineering, law, art & design, and natural resources and environment, to name a few.
“It creates this interesting experiential, education type of laboratory for students.” Borgman said.
Marissa Silverberg, program in the environment undergraduate, agreed.
“It’s empowerment through education,” Silverberg said. “It adds a certain depth to learning that you wouldn’t find in regular classes.”
The concept of a campus farm is not new. A number of universities have them. What distinguishes U-M’s program is that it’s not focused on food production, the leaders said.
“We’re not potentially growing the future farmers of America. We’re growing community members though interaction of different disciplines,” Guckian said.
“Food is universal. You have to eat to sustain yourself. And pretty much all conversations take place over a kitchen table. So this farm is serving as that table.”