As harvest season in Minnesota winds down and many Americans begin looking forward to Thanksgiving, St. Olaf College students are enjoying the last of a bountiful supply — more than two tons — of Hill-grown produce.
This season, 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. 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 the importance of healthy and sustainable eating and living.
Each year, STOGROW’s student leaders learn about sustainable farming through this hands-on experience. And after this year, student farmers will start the season with additional insight thanks to a manual written by this year’s leaders.
In collaboration with Curator of Natural Lands and Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kathleen Shea, student farmers Rebecca DeBoer ’19 and Athena Stifter ’19 spent hours in the field this 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 student volunteers. They compiled everything they learned into a written manual.
“Every single year students have had to start over from scratch, so hopefully with this plan that won’t be necessary because they’ll have something to follow,” Stifter says.
Their work was part of the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, which provides opportunities for St. Olaf students from all academic disciplines to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular subject by working closely with a St. Olaf faculty member in a research framework.
“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.”
“We’re really hoping STOGROW can continue to be a learning farm for people and an opportunity for students to try something outside the box.” — Rebecca DeBoer ’19
Stifter and DeBoer met weekly with 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, the campus food service.
“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.”
This year’s harvest produced 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.
“This can be a learning experience for the broader community because once produce from STOGROW comes to the cafeteria, then they often say something about it in the caf and students are more aware that they are eating locally,” Shea says.
Managing the STOGROW farm and putting together a guide for future student volunteers required a lot of quick and creative thinking, DeBoer says.
“It’s really cool to put together a plan like this and have to think on your feet and adapt to the many challenges that come up along the way,” she says. “We have great resources here that have helped us along the way; we can walk into pretty much any office in Regents Hall and ask for help with something. It’s cool to have that network.”
DeBoer and Stifter are grateful for these many connections, including Natural Lands Manager Nic Nelson and local farmers.
“We’re really hoping STOGROW can continue to be a learning farm for people and an opportunity for students to try something outside the box,” DeBoer says. “There’s not a lot of places where you can walk on and start farming what you would like to grow, and we would really like to keep that opportunity for people. We’re hoping the resources we provide through this new written manual will help students see this as a viable way to spend their summer.”