From St. Olaf farmland to campus dining table
With the official arrival of spring, many Minnesota farmers are beginning to make their plans for planting season.
That includes a team of St. Olaf College students who oversee a farm-to-table operation that brought more than two tons of campus-grown produce into the dining hall last year.
Student farmers with St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works (STOGROW) harvested 4,388 pounds of watermelon, squash, cilantro, peppers, basil, cabbage, cantaloupe, tomatoes, turnips, brussel sprouts, beans, kohlrabi, and cucumbers last year. All of that was sold to Bon Appetit, the college’s food service provider, and served on campus in Stav Hall.
Founded in 2005, STOGROW is an acre of student-run farmland situated in St. Olaf’s Natural Lands. Through STOGROW, students aim to provide local produce to the campus cafeteria, as well as get the student body and surrounding community involved in healthy and sustainable eating and living.
“We want people to think about where their food is coming from. STOGROW can help make people more aware of that,” says Curator of Natural Lands and Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kathleen Shea, who works with the student farmers.
Last year’s STOGROW farmers, Rebecca DeBoer ’19 and Athena Stifter ’19, will turn the knowledge they gained to a new team of recently selected farmers: Matt Hallahan ’21 and Poonam Rawat ’21.
In the spring, the student farmers take an independent research course to learn about organic farming and start planning their crops.
In the summer, they work on the farm and develop research projects related to organic farming as part of the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.
In the fall, the farmers continue their work through the harvest season as paid student workers.
The goal, says Shea, is to empower students to truly learn how to run a profitable organic farming business.
“You need to talk with the people who are going to buy your product. That means asking Bon Appetit what they need and what their prices are, and being very deliberate about it,” Shea says.
A guide to sustainable farming
Each year, STOGROW’s student farmers learn about sustainable farming through this hands-on experience. This year, the student farmers will start the season with additional insight thanks to a manual written by farmers as part of last summer’s CURI project.
In collaboration with Shea, DeBoer and Stifter spent hours in the field last summer learning through trial and error the best farming practices, testing out different techniques and equipment, and conversing with local farmers to complete a STOGROW guide for future students. They compiled everything they learned into a written manual.
“The manual includes everything from how to select the seeds you want and how to pick how big you want your farm to be, to how to set up irrigation systems,” DeBoer says. “It also has full lists of everything we bought, how much it cost, how we put it together, pictures, and videos that we link to of people teaching us how to use the tools.”
Stifter and DeBoer met weekly with STOGROW alumna Becca Carlson ’11, owner of Seeds Farm in Northfield, who served as their farm consultant. She taught them how to use the tools provided to them, discussed when to do what in the calendar year, and passed on knowledge from her experience of selling to Bon Appetit.
“We communicated with Bon Appetit at the beginning of the season while we were picking our seeds about what sort of produce they would like us to grow, which was a really valuable communication with them,” DeBoer says. “We grew specialty hot peppers, specialty tomatoes, and a few more interesting varieties of things that they might not necessarily have.”
They harvested 1,275 pounds of cabbage, 1,285 pounds of summer squash, and 928 pounds of Butternut Winter Squash, just to name a few of the most bountiful crops.
Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kathleen SheaThis can be a learning experience for the broader community because once produce from STOGROW comes to the cafeteria, students are more aware that they are eating locally grown food.
“This can be a learning experience for the broader community because once produce from STOGROW comes to the cafeteria, students are more aware that they are eating locally grown food,” Shea says.
A generous gift made recently to the Natural Lands Endowment has provided continued funding for STOGROW student farmer salaries, Carlson’s work as a consultant, and supplies — all critical elements to ensuring the farm’s long-term success.
Driving the farm-to-table movement
STOGROW’s impact is now reaching far beyond campus thanks to alumni who have become leaders in the farm-to-table movement.
Carlson, who developed an interest in organic farming while at St. Olaf, founded Seeds Farm shortly after graduating. The farm now grows over 100 varieties of vegetables for restaurants, co-ops, and schools throughout the Twin Cities region. She recently testified at the Minnesota Legislature on the benefits of a proposed farm-to-school bill.
Carlson’s Seeds Farm provides produce to the Minneapolis Public Schools, where STOGROW alumna Kate Seybold ’15 serves as the Farm to School Coordinator. In that role, she works with small and mid-size farmers in the region to source fresh, sustainably grown produce for one of the state’s largest school districts. Her work was recently featured in a Minnesota Public Radio story, which noted that “People who study farm-to-school legislation and trends say Minneapolis is a national leader.”
Seybold says her current career path began with STOGROW. She reached out to Shea as a first-year student, and began working on the farm shortly thereafter.
“I was really interested in food, and how we interact with it,” she says. “It was a very eye-opening experience for me, and I still look back on STOGROW as an experience that built my interest and knowledge in food and how it is grown.”
It also cemented her belief that getting people on a farm and in the dirt provides an invaluable learning experience. It’s a lesson she’s applying to her current work in Minneapolis.
“Offering a hands-on experience with farm-to-table is something that really engages students, young and old,” she says. “St. Olaf does a great job of exposing people to a variety of careers and disciplines. Programs like STOGROW are great for farm-to-table movements because they make people aware, in a very real sense, that these types of farms exist as businesses in our community.”