The Campus Farm keeps growing

Monday, April 13, 2020 - 1:28pm

.

Photo courtesy of Ellie Katz

If there’s one good thing that comes out of this quarantine, it’ll be the little spinach plants my boyfriend Davis and I planted in a garden bed behind his childhood home. A few weeks ago, in a rare haze of productivity, we planned out a summer garden and ordered some seeds. The first to sow? Spinach. (Which, to my uneducated surprise, does produce seeds.) We planted them in some seed-starter pellets, shoved them under the couch to “simulate soil darkness conditions,” as Davis pragmatically put it, and waited for those suckers to pop. Lo and behold, they did, and yesterday, with more focus and precision than I’ve given to any of my classes during the past two weeks, I helped him transplant them into the soil outside.

During the past 24 hours, both of us have gone out to check on them. He’ll gingerly hold the watering can over the buds or I’ll brush some dirt away from their emerging little leaves, which resemble actual spinach more and more each day. This morning I asked him how they did overnight. He replied with a detailed report of their nascent well-being. I imagine it’s how having children feels, especially if children came with far lower stakes, grew to adulthood on their own and then you ate them.

If their growth goes well and all our plants yield, we’ll have — by my comprehensive calculations — about 22 leaves of spinach to eat when all is said and done. Even though it’s not quite enough for a salad, I look forward to gently pulling the leaves off, rinsing them above the sink, and creating something with them. I feel grateful to be able to grow and eat some of my own food, even if it’s just a few leaves of spinach.

I have felt connected to where my food grows before this, though — all of us at the University of Michigan have, whether we realize it or not. Not far from the University’s central campus is the Campus Farm. Nestled behind the Matthei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, in what often feels worlds away from the urban Ann Arbor we’re used to, is organic, local produce growing in four hoop houses, two greenhouses and three acres of arable land.

The first time I volunteered at the Campus Farm was a freezing, rainy day in late October 2017 — we were outside harvesting swiss chard to be sent to the dining halls. I remember not being able to feel my fingers from the cold, but not caring because I was just beginning to realize that the swiss chard in my freezing, muddy hands was the same one I’d eat in East Quad once I got back home. 

I started volunteering almost every week and throughout the past three years I’ve been able to help harvest the spinach that was later in my spinach pie in East Quad, the microgreens that were on my bowl of stew at Maizie’s Kitchen in the League, the tomatoes in the salad bar at South Quad and the squash I took home and cooked for a Thanksgiving meal with my roommates once I finally moved out of the dorms.

Initially founded by a group of graduate and undergraduate students in 2012, the Campus Farm has grown to employ more than 27 student staff; it supports programmingvolunteer and research opportunitiesinternships and classes; it is entirely student-managed and makes over $100,000 in revenue and sells nearly 35,000 pounds of produce each year to clients like M-Dining and Argus Farm Stop. It also supports the Maize & Blue Cupboard, a food pantry that aims to ensure “healthy, nutritious, and nourishing food” to those who may face food insecurity, with regular produce donations.

Even with the coronavirus quarantine, the Maize & Blue Cupboard and the Campus Farm remain in operation. For the Campus Farm at least, there have been some obvious but necessary changes: The dining halls have temporarily suspended all orders from the Campus Farm and nearly all Campus Farm staff are now working remotely, doing administrative tasks and program  and development planning individually and through Zoom meetings. Student and community volunteer workdays have also ended until the stay-at-home order ends and the quarantine is lifted. 

Lead Manager Carly Sharp, a recent alum, and Student Engagement Manager Lydia Hsu, a senior in the School of Kinesiology, have over six years of experience working at the farm between the two of them. I’ve gotten to know both of them over the past few years through hours of pulling up drip tape and afternoons of harvesting dozens of pounds of spinach. Both Sharp and Hsu are still able to work at the farm during the quarantine.

One thing they’ve been prepping for is the annual plant sale in collaboration with Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. Each May, the farm sells transplants of popular garden plants like tomatoes and peppers. In an interview with The Daily, Sharp and Hsu said that because of the stay-at-home order in Michigan, “There will literally be thousands and thousands of plants that could go to people and won’t (if the sale can’t happen).”

If the stay-at-home order continues through the summer, the Campus Farm won’t be able to plant their normal amount, which means less produce to harvest in the fall and fewer sales made to M-Dining. “Because (M-Dining) is where a lot of our revenue comes from in the fall, it could mean fewer staff and less programming that we’d be able to support in the long run.”  

But plants are plants, and they keep doing their thing during quarantine. There is still spinach that needs to be harvested and chard that needs to be planted. Hsu said that because it’s been so warm, she plants something in a greenhouse one day, it will pop out of the soil the next.

Even though it may be a little stunted right now, the farm is certainly not going away. “I feel super fortunate and am super proud to be part of an organization that’s still supporting staff and students right now, and that we have the means to be able to do that as an organization,” Sharp said.

The best part of the Campus Farm? “It allows so much collaboration, and community, and autonomy,” Hsu said. “Whatever ideas we have, we have the space to go forth with them.”

I know for certain that without my experiences at the Campus Farm, my 22 leaves of spinach would not be growing in the backyard right now. This summer Davis and I plan to grow some jalapenos, cayenne peppers, banana peppers and cucumbers. The place where they’ll grow is just a small homemade garden bed built from some scrap wood with a few screws sticking out, but it does the trick. Virus or no virus, we’re all still learning how to grow.