The Sustainable Student Farm: Educating Farmers of the Future

The Sustainable Student Farm: Educating Farmers of the Future

I was welcomed to the Sustainable Student Farm (SSF) team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign a mere seven months ago. I quickly became obsessed with the site, finding solace in tedious weeding, happiness in good company, and a sense of purpose working toward a more sustainable, equitable, and healthy community. 

The SSF was founded by the Crop Sciences Department in 2009 with a grant from the Student Sustainability Committee. The farm, located just south of the Arboretum, began as an infrastructure-less 2 acres but has since expanded to include three high tunnel greenhouses, several sheds full of tools, and walk-in coolers. It has provided sustainable agriculture opportunities to countless students the past 13 years. Between 2017 and 2019 alone, the farm supplied 150,000 pounds of produce to University Dining and the SSF farm stand. Starting in 2021, some of this produce has also been designated for local food pantries. 

The farm’s formative years were endowed in interdisciplinary collaboration, consulting students from Architecture, Art & Design, and Engineering to lay a strong foundation. 

TOP: The Sustainable Student Farm high tunnels at sunset. ABOVE: Did you know that kale, cabbage, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts are all the same species of plant? Their scientific name is Brassica oleracea, and their appearances differ because humans selectively bred them for eating different parts of the plant. See here the Brassica plot at the SSF. Credits: Maria Maring

“We wanted to be a hub for multidisciplinary parts of the university to converge and work on various projects here,” SSF Manager Matt Turino said.

In addition to fostering cross-disciplinary relationships, one of the farm’s original goals was to financially support itself via sales, especially focusing on a robust relationship with University Dining. 

The SSF’s most obvious service is the human and environmental health benefits of providing local, sustainably produced, healthy vegetables to Urbana-Champaign’s campus and communities. To cite just a few perks: Locally-produced food typically spends less time traveling from farm to plate, and the nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables is highest immediately after harvest. Local food travels less distance to its final destination, which is associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions. And local farms typically do not practice excessive monocropping or synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use, which are known to have negative environmental impacts

“Compared to large farms, small-scale agriculture does a better job of preserving biodiversity and protecting the environment,” said former SSF student employee Susie Lin, who graduated with a degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) in December 2021. “At the SSF, we practice crop rotation, intercropping, and minimal pesticide usage.”

As it attempts to address the environmental woes of agriculture, the SSF also sparks a long-needed reconnection with our food systems and land. 

“I have found it very interesting to learn what goes into growing food — all the planning and labor,” Lin said.

“In high school, I participated in Gardening Club. When I got to the U of I, I missed working with soil,” said Bob Rogge, an English major graduating in May 2022 and a four-year SSF employee. “That is, until I learned about the SSF!” 

Small-scale agriculture is especially noteworthy in central Illinois, a land dominated by huge agricultural operations and well-established markets. 

Bob Rogge and Maria Maring prepare to transport bins of potatoes to be washed. Credit: Joana Bordalo

“I grew up here in the Midwest where there’s tons of farming, but it always felt inaccessible to me because it was always really large scale,” Turino said. “I think that when you’re from a very agriculturally focused place and (farming) is done in a very specific way, it’s hard to consider other methods of agriculture.” 

The SSF, therefore, aims to open the doors to unique and innovative agriculture and to force us to re-evaluate the norm.  

“The student farm at my college in North Carolina allowed me to get that first taste of what agriculture can be like — how compelling and powerful and exciting it is,” Turino said. “The SSF is that same entry point for (Illinois) students to see what agriculture really is” — and for students from disciplines all across campus to dabble in ag. 

“Farming is deeply dignified work,” Rogge said. “I grew up in the city. That did not give me many opportunities for this kind of labor, so it wasn’t until I worked on the farm that I realized that it was for me. Everyone should take opportunities to see what kinds of things they enjoy doing.” 

So how do you get involved at the SSF? Starting in late spring, the SSF accepts applications for a summer internship. Interns learn not only how to physically plant, cultivate, and harvest crops, but also how to plan and establish plots, collect data, and market the farm stand. This opportunity is 25 hours a week and can count for course credit or hourly pay. Alternatively, you can apply to be a student employee for the fall season. And volunteer work is always highly appreciated. Inquiries for all these avenues should be directed to Turino (turino@illinois.edu). 

“Working at the farm throughout my college career has been a very rewarding experience. It was great working alongside other students to better our community and environment,” said Lin. “I particularly enjoyed getting to take home culled (aesthetically not fit for market) produce, simultaneously reducing food waste and helping me save money on groceries.”

As the SSF has garnered more and more support over the last decade, it became clear to Turino that continuing to grow as an educational hub while also keeping up with production levels was not a feasible model. Presently, the farm is undergoing a shift to emphasize education over high levels of production. 

The lettuce is growing! The plastic sides of the high tunnel can be rolled up during the warm parts of the day as to not overheat the plants inside. Credit: Maria Maring

“I’m trying to make the SSF experience more about learning the nuts and bolts of the farm, not just being a field worker,” Turino said. “That’s my main priority for this next era: pushing the farm to be less production-oriented and more focused on teaching the background work. We want students to come away with knowledge enough to be able to garden for themselves, work on farms. Giving as many people as possible skills to grow food is a beneficial thing.”

Despite the evolving focus on the educational element, the SSF will still reap the fruits of students’ labor. The weekly Thursday farm stand on the Main Quad returns May 26, 2022. The farm will also host a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, running June 16-Aug. 18, 2022. In a CSA, customers pay an initial fee at the beginning of the season and then receive weekly deliveries of seasonal produce. FAR’s famous Monday and Wednesday “FAR Out” pizza nights are also fueled in part by the SSF. Tomatoes are one of the SSF’s most prized products, sending bins upon bins to the Pilot Processing Plant, where they’re cooked down into the freshest marinara sauce you can get

“There probably isn’t a student on campus who hasn’t consumed something that was grown locally at the SSF!” Lin said. 

So what has everyone taken away from time spent at the farm? 

Said Turino, who is in his 10th season there: “You learn that you can improve endlessly. Trying to find that balance of making it doable for you while doing things responsibly for the ecosystem, for your workers, for the customers is not straightforward. That challenge gives you endless problem-solving opportunities. It’s exciting to constantly push towards trying to be more sustainable for the environment and for your workers.”

“Working together with a team can make any work go by faster,” Lin said. “Not just because you have more hands, but because having good company makes a big difference. I’ve met fantastic people during my time at the farm, and I hope that others can find some time to volunteer at the SSF.”

— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Maria Maring

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