The Student Organic Farm can be found at the end of a winding dirt road. This small, ten-acre farm sits in the midst of an open field, sprinkled with snow. Organic greenhouses, built out of wood and plastic, line the ad-hoc driveway where workers park their cars and, on occasion, tractors.
Farm manager Tomm Becker guides me from greenhouse to greenhouse, all the while explaining the inner-workings of the farm. His love of farming and his extensive knowledge of agriculture make it easy to understand farming concepts, even for a girl from the suburbs.
Inside the greenhouses, the air remains warm and humid, despite the frigid cold. A layer of opaque, heavy plastic covers the rows of plants. Becker lifts up cover after cover with ease, proudly exposing the leafy greens. The vibrant greens, purples, and browns contrast sharply with the off-white walls.
The workers have adorned their workhouse with brightly colored murals, dirty work clothes, and a corner full of well-worn, comfortable couches and chairs. It’s clear that Becker is not the only worker with a passion for small-scale organic farming. [markham]
MSU’s foundation is in agriculture. It was the first agricultural college in the nation. According to the MSU’s website, the Michigan Legislature passed Act 130 in 1855, which first established the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan. The school officially opened on May 13, 1857. Inspired by Michigan’s innovative legislation, the Morrill Act of 1862 established 72 more land grant institutions. Currently, MSU uses over 15,000 acres throughout the state of Michigan for agriculture, animal, and forestry research.
At a university whose history is so deeply entwined with agriculture, it strikes me as strange to discover that the organic farm relies on the enthusiasm and hard work of only a few individuals. Yet for the Student Organic Farm, this is tradition. The farm began thanks to the dedication and vision of small, but strong, core of students, and has stayed that way ever since.
In 1999, a group of students from the Michigan Sustainable Agriculture Network (MSAN) took agriculture in a new direction. They wanted to create an organic farm on campus, to provide hands-on training and present an image of an environmentally and economically sustainable small-scale farm. These students created the Student Organic Farm Initiative (SOFI).
[vegpatch]Two of these students, Seth Murray and Lynn Rhodes, began working with Dr. Laurie Thorp, coordinator of the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment (RISE). She helped the students acquire funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the betterment of communities within the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Southern Africa.
“I believe in the transformational power of experiential learning,” Thorp said. “I was attracted to the farm as a site for place-based teaching and learning.”
Around the same time, horticulture professor John Biernbaum was researching four-season farming techniques and passive greenhouses, known as the Organic Salad Greens Project. He soon teamed up with Dr. Thorp, and together they wrote a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant proposal. Once they received USDA funds in 2001, Biernbaum and SOFI began building passive greenhouses, which are greenhouses that require less money, energy, and work to keep up than traditional greenhouses.
Biernbaum and a friend built the first two greenhouses in the summer of 2001. Students built three others in the fall of 2001. “How much fun the students had building was incredible,” Biernbaum recalled. “There was a real sense of accomplishment.”
Two more greenhouses were built in 2006 and 2008, bringing the total to seven greenhouses – six used for growing and one used as an office.
The farm had its first season in spring of 2002. Originally, students from MSAN and SOFI volunteered at the farm. They harvested the greens and donated them to the MSU Food Bank and other charity organizations.
Soon after, the students started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program on the farm.
“CSA promotes connected people to their food, farmers, and the land,” Biernbaum said. Members of CSA pay for their food in advance, before the harvest season. The farmers use this money to pay for land, labor and materials. Unlike normal farms, CSA members share the financial risk with farmers themselves. “If it’s a good year, the members receive more food than normal,” Biernbaum said. “If it’s a bad year, the members still receive food but in a smaller amount, and they don’t get their money back.” Currently there are over 60 CSA programs throughout Michigan.
[carrots]The CSA program at MSU garnered support quickly. “The first year we only needed 25 members, which was easily filled without advertisements,” Biernbaum said. ‘Word of mouth’ was advertisement enough. The program began with a limit of 25 members, but has since grown. Members include students, faculty, and residents from the East Lansing community. Each member pays for one share of vegetables. “Each share is designed for four healthy vegetable eaters,” Becker said. Currently, the farm distributes 60 shares in the winter and 100 in the summer.
“We could continue to grow, but that’s not the goal of the student farm,” Biernbaum said. “The goal is learning and integration.”
The Organic Farming Certificate Program takes on these goals. The certificate program, which began in January 2007, allows students to learn about organic farming without having to take general education courses. It lasts one year, or three semesters. During these three semesters, students must enroll in at least 12 credits.
[john]There are two full-time academic specialists hired by the university to teach the certificate program. Between six and eight students also work part-time at the farm for pay during the school year. In the summer months, there are generally three or four full-time student workers. Volunteers are also welcome at the farm.
Each week, the farm receives between 10 and 15 volunteers. “Volunteers get the ‘better jobs’ on the farm,” junior Sam Wildfong said. “It’s a really good learning environment. The work is pretty non-stop, but volunteers are never pushed past their limits.”
Full-time students also have the opportunity to learn about the farm, either through their classes or by volunteering. RISE students have a particularly close relationship with the organic farm. They started the free-range chicken program. “[The program] allows people to see chickens express their natural behaviors and our students learn how to raise layer hens in a sustainable system,” Thorp said. The students also started the MSU Bee Team. The bees improve pollination of the farm’s crops, and the students extract honey to sell at the farm stand.
The farm stand is one example of the “direct marketing” strategy to the MSU and East Lansing community. It’s what first attracted Wildfong to the farm. “Being introduced to farm has completely changed my educational goals and views towards community,” Wildfong said. “It is a small school of feeling within this massive university.”
Other strategies include the Spartan Harvest and CSA programs, mentioned above, and community activities like “garlic planting” days, “onion planting” days, and the Harvest Festival. “Activity is the foundation of the farm, and allows for great teaching, outreach, and extension,” Biernbaum said.
In 2005, MSAN and SOFI joined together to form the Ecological Food & Farm Stewardship (EFFS). They chose the name for its phonetic sound, “Fs,” as a tribute to Biernbaum’s “F Poem,” which describes the benefits of farming using only words beginning with “F”.
EFFS and the organic farm work cooperatively with one another. “There’s a big overlap between the farm and EFFS,” senior Holly Markham said. “Pretty much all crew members are involved in EFFS to some extent.” Altogether, EFFS has between five and ten regular and semi-regular members. Thus far, their small size hasn’t presented any problems. “I believe that sometimes a small, tight group can be more effective than one with larger members,” Markham said.
“EFFS really tries to be that connection between the students and the farm,” Wildfong said. “We want to make the farm more known and increase the conversation about local, sustainable farming.”
[cabbage]EFFS projects include helping with the organic farm’s Harvest Festival, developing organic gardens off-campus, bringing speakers to MSU to raise awareness about organic farming, and farm tours. “Farm tours are meant to educate others on how different farmers run their farms,” Markham said. “The beauty of organic farming is that there is a large range of ingenuity, creativity, and problem solving, which is often overlooked.” The farm tours allow EFFS members to “become aware of what’s possible.”
Members are also working on publishing a ‘zine’ to distribute across campus and to their CSA members. “The name ‘zine’ is more of a DYI thing. It’s a grassroots style of information, not mass produced,” Wildfong said. The magazine will include recipes and instructions on how to create passive greenhouses in your own backyard.
Future projects for the farm include building an underground root cellar and raising smaller animals, such as sheep or goats, for grazing and land fertilization. There will also be growth in the education program, including building a classroom by the farm for horticulture classes, creating an online course, and working with partners to expand the use of the course.
Overall, support for the farm remains strong. Its loyal members started from humble beginnings and created an intimate community, aimed at promoting sustainable living. And Biernbaum is proud of them.
“It’s enjoyable to sit back and think about what that small group of students accomplished. MSU is a huge place, but here is an example of a very small number who had an idea, started a team of students and faculty cooperatively working together, and got results.”

One thought on “Growing Roots”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *