Finding a way to establish a market-driven school farm
How an internship, a college and food service mavericks helped a kid from the ‘burbs get passionate about a farm of her own.

By Dayna Burtness

Words to farm by

The most useful advice I’ve received from farmers and mentors, practical and more philosophical:

“In farming, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and it’s got two ingredients: sun and grass. Take advantage of it.”
Michael Pollan at a book talk for “Omnivore’s Dilemma” in Edina, Minnesota

“Keep your pigtails out of the PTO!”
Paul Burkhouse, farmer at Foxtail Farm CSA

"If you are thinking of one thing and one thing only, you are in fact thinking of nothing at all.”
Wendell Berry

“A farm is just one big evolving piece of art.”
Josh Bryceson, former intern at Foxtail Farm CSA and current farm manager at May Farm

“Whatever you do, take time to teach.”
Dave Legvold, Northfield farmer and director of the Cannon River Watershed Partnership

“Make sure to write about every step of the process, take lots of pictures, and every chance you get, tell your story.”
Professor Jim Farrell, storyteller, sustainability advocate, and my mentor

--DB

Food stories—the disgusting and the delightful—spark the revolution

Q: What's been the single most effective way to break into the imagination of your fellow students to move them from average consumers of food to people who ask questions and want to be part of a new food future?

--NF

A: The best way to get students to shift from being passive consumers to passionate citizens is by storytelling.

When it comes to our food, the only way we can stomach half of it is because the way it was produced is very well hidden. Food detective Michael Pollan does a wonderful job of showing us how complicated and outright disgusting industrial processed food can be.

I ask my peers, what would you rather eat? A purple heirloom potato that was grown by your classmate less than a mile away without using carcinogenic chemicals, or a genetically modified potato, technically classified as a pesticide, which was shipped in from Idaho, where the fields can get so toxic that the farmers themselves won’t venture into them no matter what?

Stories put a face and meaning on what we eat, and once we do that, it’s easy to get students to start questioning not only the goodness of their food, but their clothes, their furniture, and the rest of their stuff.

--DB

July 13, 2006: After nearly two years, several grants, lots of days in the garden, too many meetings and thousands of pounds of organic produce sold on-campus and beyond, the St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic (STOGROW) Farm www.stolaf.edu/orgs/stogrow is in the midst of its second season.

We employ four student farmers, and our model of school- and foodservice-supported agriculture has been a beneficial relationship for everyone involved. Looking back, our success has been due partially to good timing and a little bit of luck, but mostly to people from all the different communities at St. Olaf working together.

But why am I telling you this, when 3 years ago I was food clueless? Therein lies the story.

. . .

I remember the night I realized my college needed a farm.

It was finally beginning to cool down and my fellow intern at Foxtail Farm CSA and I were sitting in the barn, drinking licorice tea with our feet up. A breeze floated in as we rested our backs after a long day of the usual farm tasks: weeding, preparing new beds, weeding, planting late-season brassicas, more weeding.

Between responsibilities that day had been a momentous occasion—the Foxtail farmers Chris and Paul had led us out to the watermelon bed. With a whack of his hand, Paul had cracked open a deep green melon to reveal the juicy red we’d been dreaming of since the arduous days of planting, laying irrigation tape and plastic mulch, tucking in the young melon transplants, and then protecting them with light row cover fabric anchored by shovel after shovel of soil.

The rind of that melon had been warmed by the sun, but the inside was still cool from the night air. With delight in our eyes and juice dripping from our sticky chins and fingers, the Foxtail family of interns and farmers beamed at each other with mouthfuls of watermelon. That evening, faced with leaving the farm in only a few weeks to begin my sophomore year at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, it occurred to me that this richness of an agrarian lifestyle—a little dirt under the fingernails, new muscles from hard work, a taste of interconnectedness—was something the majority of my peers were missing out on.

When I had showed up for my three-month summer internship at Foxtail Farm, I was a suburban kid through and through. Looking back, it’s amazing that the Burkhouses even hired me. I couldn’t drive stick shift, had never mowed a lawn, and couldn’t tell a tomato plant from a cucumber in the field.

Growing up in the ‘burbs, I got away with being mechanically illiterate for 19 years—if something broke, it was mostly likely plastic and cheap to replace, so why bother fixing it? Practical skills classes like Small Gas Engines or Welding in high school had been out of the question for a young woman being groomed for college and graduate school, and the closest my college liberal arts classes came to being experiential were ceramics or archery.

At 18, my father had left the family farm in southeastern Minnesota behind and the rural life with it, so my parents enrolled me in the usual suburban kid activities—piano lessons, summer academies and PSAT preparation courses— all in the hopes that I would be going somewhere.

And indeed I was, except to an unexpected destination. I headed back to the farm. As my bemused father told his friends that summer, “I worked so damn hard to get off the farm and here Dayna is, working hard to get back onto one!” In my environmental studies courses connections between most environmental problems and unsustainable agriculture began to form, but without any farm experience, my understanding was limited to what books could tell me. The whole picture of our food, from the perspectives of the farmers as well as environmentalists, was what I was after.

I was also yearning to know more about my Burtness ancestors, farmers for five generations in America and plenty more back in Norway, and to see if the genes for green thumbs and a sense for Minnesota land lay dormant in me. These days agriculture is presented to us as either an isolated and intellectually dull life or just plain impossible, basically anything but a desirable option for a vocation. The Burtness “Century Farm” in Spring Grove, Minnesota, was still in the family, so I wanted to challenge these ideas by giving it a try. Dreams of renting the land from my dad and his siblings floated around in my head, but I needed to answer hard questions first: Could I really hack it on a farm? Did I have the mind and back for it?

Interning at Foxtail Farm was anything but isolated and dull. During the first month, my ideas of self, nature and the culture surrounding food grew more than ever before. There was such a sense of competency that accompanied learning the technical aspects of farming, such as rolling barbed wire without getting slashed, tilling the straightest beds, identifying all the month-old brassicas, laying drip tape, raising chickens and millions of other things. For the first time in my life I felt capable—I could actually do something. I could build a chicken coop! I could grow pumpkins! The new confidence in using my hands to create tangible and edible results was the most empowering thing I’ve done in my whole life. I’d had a taste of self-reliance and I was hooked.

My meals had never been food for thought before; as far as I knew, food just showed up in the grocery store and the cheaper it was, the better. My fruits and vegetables had never been part of a story, never linked to real people, real farms and real land. But now I was the one partnering with soil and sun and water to nurture the seeds into shoots of green, cultivate them until they were sturdy stalks, vines or roots, and then revel in the complexity of it all while harvesting pearly purple radishes or buffing Brandywine tomatoes surrounded by my dusty friends. I was part of the story, and it made everything taste better knowing we had grown it ourselves with the health of the land in mind. Every day was like Christmas—we’d walk out to the fields early in the morning to discover what new gift of the day was waiting to be passed on to our CSA members scattered around the Twin Cities.

Yes, there were days…

Of course, there were also the days when the Chinese cabbage bolted, we harvested the garlic scapes two weeks early, and I popped the right tires of both our tractor and transplanter by driving over a diamond hoe. By my second month at Foxtail I was known as “the intern who breaks stuff!” Farming isn’t easy on the body either—my back still hurts from harvesting tons of onions and potatoes. But the whole summer at Foxtail Farm not only exposed me to the joys of hard work and living simply, but gave me a glimpse of how much better the American food system could be.

My internship led me to think deeply about the ethics of eating. Having grown good food for people I saw every week, various conglomerations of high fructose corn syrup would no longer do. The challenge was how to spread the word about the health and environmental benefits of eating responsibly or, as Michael Pollan puts it, “voting with your fork.” Many of my college peers were numb from constantly hearing doomsday warnings about everything from global warming to AIDS. The trick was getting them to fall in love as I had, with the work, the land, photosynthesis, the community. No amount of tabling in the student center could do that. This was going to take a real farm.

The idea for starting a student-run organic farm was received rather coolly in the beginning. In fact, we received a flat out “No.” The college didn’t own a tiller, the project had been tried before unsuccessfully, there were already plenty of organic farms in Northfield—the reasons went on and on. Fortunately, my farming partner and I are stubborn people, so we went ahead and scoped out an old overgrown horse corral at a college-owned farm on the outskirts of the campus which was the perfect size for growing vegetables. Land? Check.

We then approached Bon Appetit (www.bamco.com/website/home.html), the food service company on campus, about possibly purchasing some of our produce. To our surprise, here was their response: “We’ll take it. All of it.” Bon Appetit has a company-wide dedication to purchasing local and organic when possible, and our idea fit perfectly with their “Farm to Fork” program. Guaranteed local market? Check.

Markets, land, funding – all “check!”

Securing land and a market didn’t come a moment too soon, because that week our Student Government Association had discovered a surprise $100,000 budget surplus and was accepting proposals for spending the money. Dan and I pitched the idea to them, and within weeks we had a generous budget of $6,400 for a greenhouse, tiller, seeds, and equipment. We also applied for a $2,000 grant through the Finstad Program, the campus entrepreneurial center, and secured money to hire an employee for the summer. Funding and paid labor? Check and check!

We met with administrators at St. Olaf once more, and they realized that not only were we serious about starting a farm and had the know-how, but they had to say yes! In the fall of 2004, less than four months after I had the idea for a St. Olaf farm, STOGROW Farm was born. In 2006, we’ve hired another student farmer, expanded our cultivated land by about 70 percent, and at least three groups of young people have already made plans to visit us this season to learn about growing food.

I’ve talked with other students who are interested in starting gardens at their schools but meeting barriers at every step of the process. At St. Olaf, our equation for success with STOGROW has three elements: a flexible buyer, a support system of community members, faculty, staff, and administrators, and a student body that cares about the farm.

Food service cheerleaders

An economics major once told me that business and friendship should never mix, but our relationship with Bon Appetit proves this idea to be completely absurd. Instead of merely tolerating us, the general manager, Katie McKenna, and executive chef, Peter Abrahamson, of the St. Olaf Bon Appetit team are two of our biggest cheerleaders and take time out of their busy schedules to brainstorm ways we can grow and improve the farm.

When we proposed the farm idea two falls ago, they could have immediately started analyzing all the possible problems that could arise, such as issues of pricing and quantities, forecasting delivery schedules, or even how to set up STOGROW as an account in their books. Other students report that their cafeterias are very barrier-oriented, but Bon Appetit saw an opportunity to simply “do the right thing and work the details out later,” to use the words of Bon Appetit former general manager Hays Atkins.

We deliver our produce three to four times a week directly, and Peter and the sous chefs design a menu to showcase what’s in season. This flexibility allows us to concentrate on being good farmers instead of marketing and worrying about yields and delivery schedules.

While the higher-ups at the college might have been skeptical initially, they’ve been nothing but helpful ever since. Our dean and director of residential life got excited about the farm and helped us secure subsidized housing during the season. Gene Bakko and Kathy Shea, both professors of biology, have lent us their ecology field study tools, everything from soil corers to saws to marking flags. College treasurer Alan Norton and practically all members of the financial department have spent hours helping us figure out budgets, reimbursements, taxes—all the tricky aspects of farming within an institution.

Professors from every department have advocated for us during budget meetings, grant proposals, and supported us simply by believing that we could pull it off and by spreading the word. So often administrators, students and faculty view one another as adversaries, but the STOGROWers have been lucky enough to operate within a network of friends. Developing good relationships with people all over the college has been crucial to our success.

And then there are the friends and classmates who pull weeds and harvest at the crack of dawn before their classes, write articles about STOGROW in the school newspaper, and care deeply—and vocally—that their food comes from St. Olaf soil. I’ve actually had people hug me at parties when they find out I’m “the STOGROW girl.” Even if they aren’t doing the growing themselves, I think students have a sense of pride knowing that their college and their friends have started something that adds to the richness of campus life.

At every step of the way, STOGROW has been a lesson in interdependence. Yes, we started out with a good idea and a lot of passion, but any success we’ve had is the result of the larger network of people at St. Olaf and Bon Appetit being committed to STOGROW as well as caring, as professor Jim Farrell says, “for God’s ever-evolving creation.”

Now, if I can just get STOGROW food to the next family reunion, I’ll make a serious pitch for some farmland to move to when the college makes me graduate.