An afternoon at the Campus Farm.
If you asked 8-year-old Grace to go outside after even a drop of rain, I likely would have run screaming for fear of potential mud. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve always had a passion for the environment and wildlife, with my elementary school dream careers ranging from zoologist to biologist to geologist (I had a thing for the suffix “ologist”). I loved the outdoors, but I loved to love them from inside, through a window. My Dad helped get me outdoors to make an impact through volunteering. Every Saturday we would drive 45 minutes from our southeastern Michigan suburb to Detroit to volunteer at the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, or MUFI. It was there that I would face my fears of dirt and bugs.
Since starting my career as a University of Michigan student, I’ve yearned for a way to connect to nature again. It’s difficult feeling like I’m trapped in buildings for most of my day, limited by the stretch of my laptop charging cable and where the good wifi is. Then I found out about the Campus Farm.
The Campus Farm is located at 1800 N Dixboro Rd, about a 14 minute drive from the Ginsberg Center, the location for carpooling volunteers to meet. I am a firm believer that nothing bonds people more than a shared car ride. I know more about some of my uber drivers’ lives than I do of my cousins’. There’s nothing quite like being stuck in a vehicle with nothing but the road, hopefully good tunes, and three total strangers. These were the thoughts circulating through my head on the carpool ride to volunteer at the Campus Farm as we navigated through small talk that eventually turned into a discussion about looming environmental issues. We took winding roads that led us away from the bustle of campus and downtown Ann Arbor, revealing a canopy of fall foliage shading the road.
Upon arriving at the farm, we were welcomed by two student managers of the farm, Landscape Architecture and Ecosystem Science and Management student Dillon Martin and PitE and EEB junior Nick Hyslop. Our first task was planting what Hyslop and Martin referred to as “plugs,” which are plants that have been grown in individual trays. They are basically the halfway point between a seed and a fully grown plant, so they are ready to plant in units. One of the specific benefits of plug plants, according to Brookside Plant Nursery, is that they allow for “minimum root disturbance when planting,” making for an easy introductory task for those of us whose thumbs were not yet green. When planting the plugs, we had to dig a hole deep enough in the ground to fully submerge the root system and soil with the plant in order to avoid frost heave. Dillon defined frost heave as the phenomenon that occurs when the weather gets colder and water in the soil begins to freeze, causing the soil to expand upwards and outwards, which can expose plant roots to frigid temperatures that can be potentially life threatening to the plants.
After a significant amount of time squatting and planting plugs, wiping dirt off my hands and taking pictures of my fellow volunteers, I began to feel a bit thirsty. Unfortunately I forgot my water bottle, and so did two other girls, one of whom turned out to be my trip leader from a backpacking trip I did in the Pictured Rocks in August, Makena Torrey. That’s one of the things I love about the “granola” community on campus; we tend to frequent the same places and clubs, making campus feel a bit smaller and more intimate. The three of us trekked over to the nearest water fountain — the hose — and hunched over to drink from the spout.
After we filled in the entire garden bed with plugs, we moved on to the next task that would fill most of our time volunteering: clearing out the hoop houses. According to Matthaei Botanical Garden’s website page on the Campus Farm, “The Campus Farm utilizes passive solar hoop houses heated only by the sun to produce locally grown cold hardy crops like spinach and kale for MDining and Maize and Blue Cupboard all winter long.” I have no doubt that the hoop houses stay nice and toasty in the winter, because when we went into one of the hoop houses that wasn’t currently being aired out, it felt like Cancun in the peak of summer, when in actuality, it was October 23 in Michigan. However, the hoop house we were working on clearing out had the walls rolled up so air could circulate throughout, resulting in a more comfortable temperature.
Hyslop instructed us how to clear out the tomato plants. Our first goal was to unclip some of the ties holding the tomato plant to the orange strings that dangled around the hoop house. After that was completed, I pulled the base of the plant up from the ground, which was surprisingly easy since the entire root system coming up in a single tug. Then, to get the excess dirt off of the plant I shook it until it was sufficiently cleared of dirt. Finally, we threw the stalks into the back of a truck that would dispose of them properly.
Next, we moved on to cut down the full-grown stalks that remained on the left side of the hoop house so that they could be pulled up as well. We were encouraged to harvest any tomatoes we’d like while doing this work, and we were provided bags to hold those tomatoes. Nothing tastes better than a tomato ripe off the vine — though it can be a bit disconcerting when they’re hot from the air in the hoop house. Hyslop imparted the wisdom that “redder [is] better” as an indicator of ripeness.
While cutting tomato stalks, we came across a number of tomato hornworms, which are green caterpillars that are pests to tomato plants. They can eat “up to four times their weight in leaves and fruit each day.” Though they’re very cute, they’re obviously a problem for the Campus Farm. The way the Farm deals with hornworms is through natural pest control methods. Hyslop told us about how they control the hornworm populations to keep them from decimating the crops.
When it was time to leave the farm, I felt myself feeling more grounded and clear-headed. Being able to slow down for a couple hours to be present in nature with like-minded environmental enthusiasts was a much needed break from the constant stress of school and campus. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time outside in the fresh air, and relished in the opportunity to dig around in the dirt for a little while.
Volunteering at the Campus Farm is an activity that will certainly remain a part of my life for the rest of my time at Michigan. During the days following my time at the farm, I enjoyed my hard-earned tomatoes, taking each bite with knowledge of the work and care that went into their cultivation. My experience volunteering at the Campus Farm has inspired me to cultivate a home garden of my own when I move out of the dorms. There is nothing better than feeling a connection with the food you are consuming, and with our environment as a whole.
Staff Photographer Grace Lahti can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.