Nov. 6, 2012

 
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Ahmad Tarmizi Abdul Razak at Purdue student farm

Purdue senior Ahmad Tarmizi Abdul Razak carefully plucks the last few remnants of summer from a tomato vine at the Purdue student farm. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

Student farmers looking
to grow more opportunities

By Amanda Gee

Some people want to grow enough food to feed the world, but a group at Purdue University just wants to grow enough food to support individual communities.

Members of Full Circle Agriculture at Purdue, who began operating a five-acre farm on the west side of campus in 2010, are ready to redesign the space they have so they can grow more plants and expand their reach. They want to teach farming sustainability to others and help teach communities about agriculture on a smaller scale.

“I want to provide my community with food they can eat,” said Mary Lehmkuhl, co-founder and a member of club.

Michael Dzakovich, a member since the club’s founding in 2010, said some people in his hometown of Northbrook, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, didn’t think much about where their food came from.

“There’s no farm nearby. It (agriculture) is kind of abstract to people,” he said. “FCAP is an organization to primarily educate students but at the same time educate the public about food.”

Members want to show that growing food is within anyone’s reach.

Growing into their space

FCAP started leasing its small parcel of land in 2010 and has made significant improvements since then. But there was no major planning involved in the farm’s development.

“We did whatever came to our head because we only had about five serious people,” said Steve Hallett, club adviser and associate professor of botany and plant pathology.

Phase one for FCAP was acquiring the land, and phase two was generating resources. Hallett said the club is now entering phase three — development — and needs to consolidate into a sustainable business and start bringing in money regularly so the farm can help support itself.

The biggest task facing the club is to develop a plan to continue its growth.

“We’re working on efficiency improvements,” said Ashley Holmes, a member who was a summer intern at the farm.

Volunteer workers at Purdue student farm

The volunteer workers weren’t the only ones learning about agricultural sustainability at the student farm this semester. A field trip to the farm was part of the curriculum for this Botany 110 class. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

Members have brainstormed ideas and plan to add more hoop houses to the two that were installed for the summer growing season.

Hoop houses are temporary steel-framed, plastic-covered structures that help shelter plants from the weather. Holmes said the hoop houses and one movable high tunnel the club plans to buy will help extend the growing season and bring in more revenue for the organization.

With more hoop houses, the club might be able to devote one hoop house to Purdue’s Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management. The department, part of the College of Health and Human Sciences, regularly buys produce from the farm for its restaurants across campus.

With more enclosed spaces, the club wants to show people that crops can be grown year-round.

“Our goal is to sell something every week of the year,” Lehmkuhl said.

She hopes to start growing plants such as tomatoes, rosemary, thyme and sage earlier than normal and work on closing the long gaps between growing seasons.

Sowing seeds in the community

The club has started offering CSA, or community-supported agriculture, baskets of produce that are specific to each growing season. Members did a test run during the summer this year and are continuing the program this fall.

The program averaged about 12 customers a week and helped club members establish a routine that has started them on their way to being a trusted supplier.

“CSAs go hand in hand with small farms,” Dzakovich said. “They can be a pretty stable source of income. In a well-maintained CSA, you’ll know how many plants you’ll need for the season, and you can avoid wasting space and energy.”

Students and summer interns harvested onions, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and green beans just hours before customers would pick up their baskets. Extra produce was sold in Lilly Hall to professors and students.

“It is better to get the produce in someone’s hands instead of having it going to waste,” Lehmkuhl said.

Fall CSA baskets will include selections of spinach, lettuce, beets, kale, radishes and popcorn, and herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage and parsley.

Students touring Purdue student farm.

At least one of the occupants of the farm appears to be just as curious as the touring students. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

Cultivating a curriculum

Club members are interested in alternative, organic ways to create sustainable farms. Most of them want to learn the basics of many things, not the specifics of one animal, plant or farming practice.

Lehmkuhl, now a graduate student, said she wanted more opportunities that would allow her to learn about farming.

“I don’t come from a family farm,” she said.

The student farm sees pulses of activity throughout the year, such as during planting or harvesting, and during those times it needs extra help.

“It’s a paradoxical problem — we need people when summer finishes, but that’s also when classes start back up,” Hallett said. “Everybody goes back to classes and the farm gets forgotten about, even though there’s usually at least one last summer harvest.”

He thinks the farm and the curriculum should feed off each other and wants to create class-specific blocks of time for students to gain experience.

Hallett has created a handful of funded internships for those who want to work on the farm, but it’s a stand-alone program and isn’t part of the curriculum. The interns take care of the farm during the summer when most students are off-campus.

Reaping the benefits

Club members don’t have much time during the growing season to promote their club or celebrate their accomplishments. But this winter, the club will host its first formal, black-tie event Dec. 15 at the Elks Club in West Lafayette. The event will give members an opportunity to share their accomplishments at the farm and to enjoy some of the benefits of growing their own food.

Calling it a “Christmas dinner–hog roast,” Holmes said the group will serve hogs, sheep, ducks and produce raised on the student farm.

Club members will also educate the Purdue community about its plans for the future. Tickets are $15 for students, $30 for staff and alumni, and $55 for couples.

For more information on the dinner or the club, visit http://www3.ag.purdue.edu/programs/studentfarm/Pages/FCAP.aspx or check out the club’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/FullCircleAgricultureAtPurdue.

A July 2011 ConnectionsNOW! article on the student farm, including video, is available at http://www3.ag.purdue.edu/Connections/NOW/Pages/farm.aspx.


 

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