Food: it comes from the ground
It’s an unassuming lot — that is, if you make it out there. Nestled in a quiet, hilly patch of various shades of green next to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, seven miles from Central Campus, sit an un-showy few plots of land. Deftly manicured rows of crops, a full, working hoop house, an abundance of hoses watering plants — even though we’re definitely not on campus, this is the Campus Farm.
Founded in 2012 by a group of graduate students, the Campus Farm is a self-sustaining, student-run, year-round farm. There are 10 student managers that oversee almost all aspects of the operation, from planting to harvesting to distribution, and every Friday, about 40 volunteers It’s one of those “Duh!” extracurriculars, if you get what I mean — you had never heard about it, but once you did, of course that makes sense.
Engineering junior Carly Sharp is one of those 10 student managers. She’s also in charge of coordinating volunteers for Volunteer Workdays every Friday.
“It’s a living-learning community, so the idea is to bring students out there to learn more about agriculture,” she said. “It’s meant to provide a space for students to get a chance to see where their food comes from and its impacts on the environment.”
The Campus Farm is funded by grants and donations, but as a model of sustainability, its recent Good Agricultural Practices certification has been a huge step forward for the program.
Previously, Campus Farm produce was sold to Argus Farm Stop (a local produce stop) or Student Food Co., or volunteers and student managers would take home what was left. In the past year, the program hired a full-time manager to help achieve GAP certification, and ever since, the Campus Farm has sold much of its produce to the University dining halls and the Ross Business School Executive Suite.
“I feel like the cool thing about the farm selling to the dining halls is that it’s full circle, almost like we grow the food that we eat,” Sharp said. “We grow food for students, and the students that come out and volunteer grow food for other students.”
Katie Samra, another school yeat student manager, tells me that every Sunday at noon, when the Campus Farm sends out its emails detailing the harvest list for the coming week, MDining is often the first to respond, within a matter of minutes. The program even helped the University dining program achieve its goal of sourcing at least 25 percent of its produce from local, sustainable options.
As weekly volunteers mill about — some experienced gardeners and some first-time freshmen — student managers implore them to wash their hands. This is food to be harvested, bought and sold, after all.
Groups are made and volunteers are split up: Some will help with the weeding, some will help to clean up around the farm and some will actually help harvest the crops. The latter are then taken aside for a long instruction period about food handling, cleanliness and safety by Jeremy, the recent full-time hire; the Campus Farm places a great deal of importance on cleanliness and good agricultural practice.
In the first plot, there are rows upon rows of tomatoes, peppers and lettuce mixes. In the hoop house — recently built, and of which there will be two more very soon — is an assortment of kale and chard. The farm isn’t like one you’re used to; it’s smaller, more compact. But it is impressively well-maintained — and quite a sight to behold.
Christian Mackey, a first-year Masters student in the School of Public Health, is a program director for the Student Food Co., which is an organization dedicated to making produce affordable and convenient for students on campus. As one of the Campus Farm’s main buyers, SFC has been, in Mackey’s experience, nothing but impressed with the program’s success.
“They not only help us in making food affordable, but they really help us in the side mission of ours, which is the promotion of sustainability,” he said. “Their practices are all organic and the fact that our partnership gives us a really convenient source of high-quality organic goods is invaluable to us.”
Student Food Co. — which doesn’t process any produce, and only sells whole, uncut fruits and vegetables — began partnering with Campus Farm last year, and it now sells their produce twice a week in Mason Hall.
“It’s felt like a growing movement since I’ve been with them, and the academic side of food is starting to grow here at U of M,” he said. “It’s a relationship we want to keep up.”
It is quite remarkable, too, to consider how much work goes into maintaining and running a successful farm, especially as students with classes, extracurriculars and other jobs. The fact that they’ve achieved this level of self-sustaining success in such a short period of time is downright impressive. But Sharp says it never feels like a job to her.
“It’s my favorite part of every week,” she said. “I just think it’s important to get out in nature, so I love going out to the farm — and I definitely got a community out of it.
The students who volunteered to help weeding are crouched on their knees in the main plot, plucking leaves that look — to the untrained eye — nearly indistinguishable from the crops to harvest. It’s hot out, but they’re having fun, and they look committed.
So does everyone here. The harvesting group listens intently and seriously to the instructions about cleanliness before steadfastly cleaning their hands and heading over to the hoop house. A volunteer — presumably a regular — pulls out a couple of poster mock-ups to help advertise the Campus Farm around campus.
Mackey tells me, “I know that when I go to the farm I feel an emotion that is similar to things that people would traditionally call art.” It sounds a bit cheesy, but it makes sense in context. It’s an experiment that’s paid off, a model of DIY hard work by students, for students. You could definitely call it art.