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.”
“Keep your 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.”
“A farm is just
one big evolving piece of art.”
do, take time to teach.”
“Make sure to
write about every step of the process, take lots of
pictures, and every chance you get, tell your story.”
stories—the disgusting and the delightful—spark
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 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
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
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
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
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.