Sustainable Student Farm serves enriching experience on campus
October 30, 2017
Vegetables and fruits served through the University’s dining halls are grown less than three miles away from campus on a picturesque five-acre farm.
Students and volunteers plant, tend and harvest the produce on the Sustainable Student Farm, just south of campus by the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Windsor Road.
The farm generates high yields of produce, about 30,000 pounds annually, which is sold to University dining halls, Bevier Café and on-campus farm stands.
The farm sells 80 percent of its crops to dining services which creates menu items based on what the farm has. There is no quota they have to meet; however, there is an operating budget that determines how much it grows in order to sell a certain amount of produce.
Simon Pokorny, junior in FAA, worked on the Sustainable Student Farm this past summer as a farmhand.
“Being a landscape architecture major, I wanted to sort of get more in tune with the land,” Pokorny said. “I hadn’t really worked like a farmhand job or anything where I was really working with dirt and plants.”
The job required him to work early-morning hours into the afternoon planting seeds, tending crops and performing other maintenance tasks.
Pokorny credits Matt Turino, the manager, and Stefan Johnsrud, assistant manager, for teaching him everything he now knows about planting and gardening.
Since 2012, Turino has worked five seasons on the farm. He previously worked on a farm in North Carolina where he attended school. After graduating, he moved back to Urbana and started as a farmhand. He then became assistant manager for two years under the management of Zach Grant, the previous manager, before taking over the position three years ago after Grant’s departure.
Johnsrud began working at the farm last spring, making this fall his second season. He was working on organic farms in Urbana and Wisconsin before being scouted by Turino.
Johnsrud said his favorite aspect of working on the Sustainable Student Farm is the relaxed atmosphere and resources available.
“It’s exciting for me to just have access to some of the equipment here that I just wouldn’t be able to try out on my own,” Johnsrud said. “I’m looking forward to starting my own farm soon. And I’ll have a better idea about what gear I’ll want to purchase — without the personal expense of buying it, and trying it, and going through all that trouble.”
The Sustainable Student Farm is vast in size, and aside from farmland, there are high tunnels that allow for year-round production.
With winter approaching, certain vegetables that aren’t cold tolerant are already done being harvested. But carrots, broccoli and other greens will continue to grow in the field until November when they must be collected due to frost.
The farm is currently not USDA Certified Organic, though they use USDA Organic Standards.
Organic practices mean they use minimal spraying, crop rotations and promote field fertility.
Turino said they are attempting to perfect their food safety certification before possibly attempting the organic certification in the future.
The farm received its Good Agricultural Practices certification which ensures healthy sanitation procedures. GAP calls for highly strict export procedures and record keeping so that there is a paper trail to monitor the produce.
The farm is run by workers and volunteers who can sign up through the farm’s website.
Though some of them may have worked on another farm beforehand, Turino said that is not true for most.
“The vast majority, in the 90 percentile range if not higher, have no farm experience before volunteering or working for us,” Turino said.
The farm doesn’t rely on volunteers, but they are encouraged to apply and are largely welcomed. Johnsrud said he would like any future volunteers to check out the farm and give it a try.
“We do have tours for groups if people are interested in seeing the place or excited to see what a small vegetable farm looks like and if they’re interested in experiencing it or working here,” Johnsrud said. “That’s the reason we’re here as far as we’re concerned.”
The experience of working as a farm hand can be a unique and enriching experience. Working with your hands and producing something worthwhile is but one of the reasons people volunteer on the farm.
Pokorny said he would like to work back on the farm in the future. He learned a lot from his experience and believes others will too.
“For anyone that’s interested, I’d say just try it; get out there,” Pokorny said. “Volunteer for a day. You don’t know how much you’ll like it until you’re out there. It’s really, really fun (and a) great learning experience.”