STUDENT FARMS: Michigan State University, East Lansing
Fertile Minds

Innovative MSU ag professor sows the seeds for a new generation of organic farmers

By Dan Sulivan

Posted August 2, 2004: “Out here on the farm, the physical changes you can see being made—for me, that was something that I needed,” says Michigan State University environmental studies major Michael Rodriguez as he takes a break from turning compost at the Student Organic Farm in East Lansing.

Rodriguez was initially enrolled in the school of packaging engineering but switched majors to environmental studies after “some of the things I was learning outside of school were conflicting with what I was learning [inside]…mostly revolving around consumerism,” he says. “I got involved in environmental activism on campus.”

While the campus environmental group “got things done,” Rodriguez says, “I discovered, after a year, that I was getting burnt out and I started to focus more on my individual actions.”

Rodriguez took a summer job at the 10-acre Student Organic Farm, helping to install the first of four high tunnels. That’s where he met John Biernbaum, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and faculty advisor to the farm.

“This is also a type of activism, only it’s more tangible,” says Rodriguez. “You are producing something and showing people that things can be done. This is where I spend most of my time outside of school.”

Experiential learning

Part of the support for the Student Organic Farm comes from Biernbaum’s research into low-input high-tunnel season extension. Constructed at a cost of about $2,500 to $3,000 each, three 20' x 96' and one 30' x 96' unheated high tunnels--a combination of single-layer poly and double-layer inflated walls--stand side by side, opening up not only a research funding source but a whole new world of possibilities for these student organic farmers. More high tunnels are planned, depending on support for Biernbaum’s research.

The high tunnels--along with two heated greenhouses at the nearby MSU horticulture farm--help make possible a 48-week CSA, which creates a revenue stream and offers students the chance to pick up marketing as well as new agriculture skills.

“It helps students learn about farming,” Biernbaum says. “They’re not here in the summertime—September 3 is the first week of classes.” That’s also when planting occurs, he says. “Plants are harvested right before they go home for Thanksgiving, so they get to bring salad greens home to mom and dad.”

Just 6 square feet of hoop house space produces a pound of the cut-and-come-again mixed greens every two to four weeks, Biernbaum says, which fetch anywhere from $4 to $8 depending on the season. Three or four crops annually of organic tomatoes are also grown under the structure, producing about 1 to 2 pounds per square foot each harvest.

Other crops produced inside the high tunnels and out in the field include kohlrabi, chard, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, onions, squash, carrots, beets, and a variety of herbs and flowers.

“You can actually have students sow during the school year; that’s one of the steps they need to make that connection to farming.

Season-extension guru Eliot Coleman is an enthusiastic supporter and has visited MSU’s Student Organic Farm.

“Eliot didn’t know what to think when he got here and there were 15 or 16 students waiting to meet him—it was 20 degrees outside,” Biernbaum (“John” to his students) says. “I think it was really good for him to see what he’s been working on being widely appreciated by the students and applied here.”

Biernbaum has also traveled to Pennsylvania to learn from low-input greenhouse guru Steve Moore and has implemented some of the master’s techniques, such as internal row covers. “I don't know of any university where more pertinent and farmer-useful information on high tunnels is being done,” Moore says of Biernbaum’s research.

Besides year-round food production, the farm’s curriculum includes soil health; compost management; insect, disease and weed management; and sound whole-farm management techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and transplant and seed-media production. Plans are under way to bring hogs on board in order to close the nutrient cycle and to further demonstrate a successful, healthy and humane integrated system.

Embracing community

Biernbaum says one of the farm’s goals is to educate visitors so that they go away not asking the question “Why is organic food so expensive?” but rather begin wondering “Why is conventional food so cheap?”

The farm started in 2000 when agriculture student Seth Murray, who was doing independent study with Biernbaum, approached his professor with the question: “Other schools have organic farms; why can’t we?” Biernbaum encouraged Murray to voice his request to top administrators.

“It’s much more effective for a student to say ‘You know what? I’m not getting what I want at this land-grant university’” than for a faculty member to make such a plea, says environmental studies professor Laurie Thorp, Ph.D., who heads up MSU’s Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment (RISE) program and has several students under her tutelage plugged into the Student Organic Farm. (Murray now has his Ph.D. and is doing pioneering organic research at Cornell University.)

“A lot of people would come and go, and that was a real problem for us,” says Lynn Rhodes, who helped Murray draft the original letter to administrators and who entered the horticulture department as a freshman when he was a senior.

In on the ground floor of the student farm, Rhodes, who graduated in May, has seen the project through many growing pains. A real breakthrough, she says, was the acquisition of a dedicated workforce when the farm figured out a way to pay student workers. Volunteers are just hard to come by consistently, she says. The paid positions also help carry the farm through the summer months.

Three 16 week CSA cycles “match up perfectly with our semesters,” Rhodes says. Each 16-week share costs $350, and the farm just boosted its membership from 25 to 50 subscribers—designed for a family of four—per cycle (there’s a longer waiting list, but the consensus was to grow cautiously in order to maintain high standards).

“The first week of distribution is the first semester of the year,” Rhodes says. “With us having the hoophouses and John doing his research and experimenting with winter greens, we get to use that with our CSA.”

While the ideal has always been to have a lot of undergraduate subscribers, lack of adequate cooking facilities in dormitories has dictated that most of the farm’s CSA customers are grad students, professors, and other university staff. (A planned community dormitory for students in the RISE program may help change that.)

Easy going Rhodes is typical of these young farmers, much more eager to lead by example than to point out any shortcomings in the agriculture department. “I like to be more subtle in my approach, show folks what works and what’s the right thing to do. If you can subtly creep into someone’s life and get them to see what’s going on…It’s just a better approach.”

She does offer that the whole system model of the Student Organic Farm makes possible a more meaningful learning experience. “How can you really get to know a plant by just cutting off a twig and setting it on the table? It’s too disconnected and fragmented. [The Student Organic Farm] is a chance to put into practice things that you’re hearing about, learning about, reading about, and writing about. Horticulture is a tough subject if you’re not connecting it to something real and tangible.”

And, as Rhodes—who earned 3 independent study credits for walking the farm through organic certification—has learned firsthand, farming can be tough, too.

“It’s been really exciting for me to have started this. If I was going to start my own farm, I now know what questions you have to ask. What decisions do you have to make? What are you going to grow, and who are you going to sell to? How long is the growing season? Just the kind of questions you are going to have to ask if you are going to start a farm...And if I go work on a farm that wants to get certified, I’ve been through that process.”

In that spirit of the whole, these farmers—students and teachers alike—make an extra effort to include the entire campus population. “It’s open to all majors,” says Rhodes. Indeed, the departments of food science, resource development, entomology, horticulture, and environmental studies have all benefited from what the Student Organic Farm has to offer, but the opportunities go beyond academics. “Everyone eats,” Rhodes observes, “and in my opinion everyone should have the opportunity to be involved in eating locally.”

“One of the things I really like out here is that there are so many disciplines interested in taking sustainable agriculture in a lot of different directions,” says Ashley Sprouse, an alternative education major whose been instrumental in outreach to low-income students both at the on-campus children’s garden and at their Lansing-area elementary school.

Deep ecology

The Student Organic Farm runs around the core values of “diversity, trust, love, curiosity, awareness, and oneness” with the mission “to cultivate a sustainable, community supported farm.”

Heather VanWormer is an anthropologist who recently obtained her Ph.D. at MSU. Over the course of her studies, Van Wormer helped faculty advisor Laura Delind, Ph.D., with her pioneering work with CSAs in a four-state area including Michigan. New Farm caught up with Van Wormer on CSA pickup day at the Student Organic Farm. What does she make of the success of this student-run farm and the burgeoning CSA movement in general?

“It’s a criticism of our food system and people not eating locally—local species, local season and local community…It’s a way to get reconnected to the local food system instead of getting bananas from Chile…And it tastes better.”

For these young students considering farming as a vocation, Van Wormer says, the CSA model offers a way for them to see that there’s a community willing to back them up. “For farmers, it’s a way for somebody to share the risk. If it hails, nobody gets any spinach. If there’s a squash boom, everyone benefits.”

The challenge for any CSA, Van Wormer says, is to make that community connection.

“I think this CSA is already connected through public education, the horticulture department, the children’s garden—that outreach is already here…It’s a great learning environment; they don’t have to build it from scratch.”

While it’s true that the Student Organic Farm is not fully self-funded, neither is any other academic department on campus. “It’s okay to make mistakes here and not have my livelihood on the line,” observes Rhodes. “I can gain the experience and have the guidance….I can have ideas, go through the process and say ‘What do you think about this?’ and not be ruined or lose my land because of a bad choice.”

But Biernbaum’s ultimate goal is financial solvency, not because it is required by administrators (it’s not) but simply to show these young farmers, and the rest of the world, that this is a workable model.

“Sustainability can be profitable,” he says. “Our hope is demonstrating that it’s true…We’ve got to have the data.”

The idea is not to go back in time, Biernbaum says, but to go forward with those ideas of value that have been left behind. “Sustainability is about being responsible to those who come forward. But the [The Iroquois Confederacy] concept of ‘seven generations’ is not just seven generations forward, but seven generations back. And it doesn’t mean you have to do what they did, but consider what choices they made and what it means. We have to understand their stories.”

“And there’s a word for that,” adds Thorp. “It’s called ‘Wisdom.’”

“Here in this academic system, we have minds out of control,” offers Biernbaum. “They are overactive…The mind, when it works alone, is a dangerous thing. It’s like the adolescent who becomes fixated on one thing and that’s all they can see…”

“How else could we allow things like war to happen? How else could we allow things like GMOs? We are kind of in the adolescent stage and kind of coming out of it. Hopefully we can put the mind in its place…”

“We’re coming into this mature stage of putting things back together …Farming connects to health by turning off the mind. Why do we need gardens in schools? We need to turn off the mind. You get people out connected with nature and the rest takes care of itself.”

Biernbaum concedes that of a dozen students, perhaps only three or four will make successful farmers. He also understands that there are myriad other lessons to be learned here, such as an appreciating for the real value of food and the meaning of community.

Teacher as Student

Relatively alone in an agriculture school that largely embraces former secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s pronouncement of “get big or get out” (with all its implications of high inputs and subsidies), Biernbaum has learned over time to be sensitive to the fact that, when he talks about his own vision of low inputs and local economies of scale, he may inadvertently be offending someone.

“I’ve watched students get madder and madder and madder,” he says, finally realizing that “by questioning [conventional agriculture], I was basically saying that their parents and their grandparents were stupid.”

But, like any good mentor, Biernbaum realizes that learning is a lifelong process.

“If we just come out here and do what we think is right…we don’t have to be evangelists.

“The students help out a lot with that.”

Dan Sullivan is senior editor at The New Farm.