At colleges and universities across the country, students are finding--and founding--opportunities to make sustainable agriculture part of a well-rounded education. Many go on to farm organically in real life.

By Laura Sayre, New Farm senior writer


ABOVE: OASIS Farm, New Mexico State. Student workers in the OASIS fields, fall 2002. Andy Giron is majoring in Agricultural Extension Education; Andrea Padilla in Family and Consumer Sciences. In 2002 the student farm cultivated 142 varieties of flowers, herbs, and veggies, and yielded 20,000 lbs of food (photo courtesy of Connie Falk).

“I think of the farm as an agent of change,” says Scott Stokoe, manager of the Dartmouth College Organic Farm in Hanover, New Hampshire. “A place where students can identify problems and figure out how to fix them.”

Ivy-League Dartmouth is hardly known as a seedbed of student radicalism, but on two sandy acres overlooking the Connecticut River, that could be quietly changing. Stokoe confesses that when he was first hired to run the Dartmouth Organic Farm in 1997, he was uncertain whether to understand the project as a new chapter in the history of food politics or as the tail end of an older movement, finally surfacing at a fundamentally conservative institution.

Seven seasons later, the farm has come to fill a small but beloved role within the Dartmouth College community, supplying fresh produce to one of the campus dining halls, helping students prepare for study-abroad programs in Africa and Latin America, and serving as a popular activity, especially for sophomores, who at Dartmouth are required to spend their summer quarter on campus. Today the farm has half a dozen paid part-time student workers, another dozen or so regular volunteers, and over 200 people on its email list. Stokoe and the students operate a farmstand on the main quad one day a week in season, grossing about $4000 a year.

Meanwhile, as if in answer to Stokoe's question, similar programs have been taking root at colleges and universities across the country. Although no definitive directory of student farms exists, a preliminary survey conducted by The New Farm has identified more than forty on-campus farms in the US (and one in Canada), offering thousands of young people hands-on experience in growing and marketing a wide range of food crops. In the past decade alone, farm projects have been established at over a dozen schools, including Cornell University, Rutgers University, Michigan State University, New Mexico State University, Vassar College, Bennington College, Prescott College, Oberlin College, the University of Vermont, and the College of the Atlantic. There are even rumors of a nascent student farm at Yale University, where in mid-November supporters of the Yale Sustainable Food Project hosted a symposium on sustainable college dining in the Northeast.

Nationwide, these farms are as diverse as the students who work them and the lands they occupy. They range in size from less than an acre to more than two hundred acres. Some are run as community-supported agriculture programs; others supply dining halls or sell at farmers markets. Some are certified organic; others follow organic or sustainable methods but are not certified. Some, like Dartmouth’s, are overseen by a full-time staff person, while others are loosely supervised by professors of ecology or plant and animal sciences. Many are linked to courses in subjects like ecological agriculture, organic gardening, sustainability, or global food politics. Relatively new programs join older student farms at schools like the University of California at Davis, UC Santa Cruz, Berea College in Kentucky, and Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, which started its farm program in 1894.

Seeking ecological literacy

The Sterling College Farm in Vermont includes solar and wind powered barns, pasturelands, certified organic gardens, fruit trees, greenhouses, and diverse livestock--a living laboratory for the exploration of sustainable agricultural systems (photo courtesy of Gwyn Harris).

So what's fueling this recent growth of student farms, and keeping the older ones going? What benefits do students and institutions derive from them? And how are they different from the research and extension farms associated with land-grant universities in every state?

That student farms are distinct from university research farms is suggested by the fact that several have been founded at universities like Iowa State, Michigan State, Penn State, and New Mexico State, which also have traditional ag programs. Although some of these are officially linked to agronomy departments or even to programs in sustainable agriculture, they share basic characteristics with student farms at small liberal arts colleges: they are open to all students, regardless of major; they are relatively small-scale; and they emphasize hands-on experience not just in production but also in marketing. At a deeper level, all student farms are united by a set of educational principles: that students can and should develop manual skills alongside intellectual power; that the campus is a community rooted in place and strengthened by non-academic activities and relationships; and that farm work can give students a practical perspective on a wide range of ecological, economic, and social issues.

Many of the more recent student farms have drawn inspiration from the writings of David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College. In books like Ecological Literacy (1992) and Earth in Mind (1994), Orr has argued that environmental issues are relevant to all undergraduate disciplines--literature, history, science, politics--and that one of the best places to demonstrate this to students is on campus farms. Stokoe agrees: a yearning for ecological literacy, he says, is what draws students to the Dartmouth farm. "A lot of what we do here is practical natural history in the name of food production. Agriculture is about managed ecosystems. It’s a portal, a place in between. I get students for whom this is the closest they’ll ever get to the woods--and others who are here because where they really want to be is in the woods.”

Balancing the books

A more material reason for the recent spread of campus farms is probably the rise of community-supported agriculture (CSA). Almost by definition, student farms have potential CSA constituencies right at their doorsteps, and many take creative advantage of this fact. Nearly half of the student farms identified here market at least some of their produce through CSA. The Hampshire College farm CSA has 200 members, more than half of whom are students, and as a result has developed an innovative 'fall only' CSA running from September 1st to Thanksgiving. (They're planning to add a 'spring share' in the near future.) The CSA at the Oberlin College farm features 'institutional shares' which are sold to the college's dining halls. The Iowa State student farm participates in a producers' cooperative CSA with four other local growers. The CSA run by the Common Ground Farm at the University of Vermont donates 50 percent of its output to local food aid projects. And so on.

While CSA setups help keep many of these operations afloat, student farms vary widely in their institutional status and in their overall funding mechanisms. Some campus farms--like the Poughkeepsie Farm Project at Vassar College and the Fulton Farm at Wilson College--are essentially independent enterprises that employ and train students in exchange for reduced rent or other benefits. Many, including the student farms at Cook College, Cornell University, and the University of Idaho, are organized as student clubs, making them eligible for supplemental funding from student councils. A few are organized as non-profits and have secured grants for start-up costs or outreach programs. Some, like the Agricultural Studies Farm Center at Hampshire, exist as freestanding entities with their own (often fiercely-defended) lines in the institutional budget.

"A lot of schools subsidize sports teams--Hampshire doesn't have organized sports, so I guess the farm is like our athletic program," jokes Nancy Hanson, manager of the Hampshire CSA. One of the challenges of running a student farm, she says, is "dealing with the constant misunderstanding that you should be making money." A student farm's educational mission, Hanson argues, will often mean that it must be subsidized, since (for instance) it can't use labor as efficiently as a regular commercial farm. "I often have twelve people for two hours to do a job that would probably be quicker with four people for four hours. People are here to learn, so you have to take that into account." At Dartmouth, Scott Stokoe likewise takes issue with the double standard often applied to campus farms. “The French Department doesn’t support itself--so why should an educational farm?" he asks.

A related challenge faced by student farms is that their labor force is constantly shifting. As Scott Latham, a student intern at the Cook College farm, puts it, "the only bad thing about the student organic farm is the turnover rate." Karen Joslin of Iowa State agrees: "Reinventing the wheel every few years when 'core' people leave" has been one of the ISU farm's greatest obstacles. Most campus farms find it necessary to hire a full-time, non-student farm manager for this reason. Student farms without staff managers, like the Cook College farm and the University of Vermont farm, seek to address the challenge of continuity by assembling detailed farm handbooks in which each year's student managers attempt to pass on their experience to those who follow.

Involving the whole campus

Winters at Wilson: In Chambersburg, PA students at Wilson College's Fulton Farm participate in a winter "Gardening for Fitness and Pleasure " class (photo courtesy of Matt Steiman and Inno Onwueme).
America's oldest student farms tend to be at smaller colleges that have made manual labor and community service a central core of their educational project. At these 'work colleges', all students are required to work part-time, whether at the campus farm or the campus radio station or the campus library; usually, they receive free tuition or free room and board in return. Deep Springs College, a two-year, all-male college founded in 1917 and located in the high desert of east-central California, has not just a farm but also a ranch and a garden. Warren Wilson College has 110 work crews altogether, four of which are assigned to the farm and garden; the three Farm Crews--Pig, Cattle, and General--employ 25 students. "There is even a Dean of Work here," explains Farm Manager John Pilson. In Vermont, Sterling College runs a three-month Summer Farm Semester in addition to its regular farm work program during the academic year; it also has a student-managed woodlot. Berea College, with 1500 students and a 480-acre farm, has had a student work program since 1859.

Not surprisingly, mature student farm programs like these come closest to the ideal of full farm-to-campus ecological integration. The Warren Wilson farm supplies 6000 pounds of ground beef a year to the school's dining services while the college garden composts all dining hall waste. Most student farms, however use at least some compost made from food scraps or campus leaves and supply some produce back to the dining halls. At Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, farm manager Matt Steiman not only composts manure from the campus stables and supplies vegetables to the cafeteria, he also converts used fryer oil from the college kitchen into biodiesel to power the farm’s irrigation pump and other equipment. The Oberlin Sustainable Agriculture Project uses a human-powered tricycle to transport food waste from student dining co-ops to the farm for composting. At larger universities, the scale of the student farm tends to be so out of proportion to the scale of the institution that only a small degree of integration is possible.

Student farm managers report that academic integration--linking farm work directly to academic courses--can also be a challenge. Even agroecology classes can suffer from a gap between theory and practice, says Albie Miles, Curriculum Project Coordinator for the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which has run a six-month farm and garden apprenticeship since 1975. CASFS is leading an effort to improve sustainable agriculture education by strengthening inter-institutional networks. "The first phase was the publication of Teaching Organic Farming and Gardening: Resources for Instructors," explains Miles. (The 600-page tome is available for purchase or download via the CASFS website.) "The second phase, which we're in now, is to compile and exchange instructional resources for introductory, undergraduate courses in sustainable agriculture." CASFS is gathering input from all the existing programs in California, and convened a workshop for sustainable ag educators at this winter's Eco-Farm Conference in Monterey, Calif.

Perhaps the most obvious measure of success for student farms is the number of participants who go on to farm elsewhere after graduation--and by all accounts this is pretty high. Of the thousand or so people who have been through the CASFS apprenticeship, an estimated 75 percent have gone on to ag-related careers. "A number of [Dartmouth Organic Farm] alums have gone on to work in food systems in one way or another--including me," reports Emily Neuman, now a graduate student working at the Iowa State student farm. Scott Latham at the Cook Farm says he is definitely planning to look for farm work next season. "Maybe eventually I could get a job as a manager at another student farm," he muses. "Farming, gardening, growing vegetables, inspiring people to grow vegetables--that's what I want to do." Student farms serve a unique role, argues Leslie Cox, manager of the Hampshire Farm Center, as places where young people can get exposed to farming without making a big initial commitment. Moreover, he emphasizes, they have a double impact: "I feel I'm not just training future farmers, I'm educating consumers. Kids who work here for a year are more likely to go on to support farms in their local communities later in life. That's enormously valuable."