Words to farm by
The most useful advice I’ve received from
farmers and mentors, practical and more philosophical:
there is such a thing as a free lunch, and it’s
got two ingredients: sun and grass. Take advantage
pigtails out of the PTO!”
"If you are
thinking of one thing and one thing only, you
are in fact thinking of nothing at all.”
is just one big evolving piece of art.”
you do, take time to teach.”
to write about every step of the process, take
lots of pictures, and every chance you get, tell
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?
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
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.
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)
www.stolaf.edu/orgs/stogrow is in the midst of its second
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,
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
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.
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
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
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.