Organic farm on St. Paul campus allows students to cultivate their green thumbs

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Getting up early to avoid the summer heat, several University students spend their weekday mornings working at the farm. It’s hard work – harvesting, seeding, watering and weeding – but it’d be tough to find a more convenient location. The roughly acre-and-a-half plot is right on campus.

Cornercopia is a student-run organic farm at the southeast corner of Cleveland and Larpenteur avenues in St. Paul. Sharing space with rows and rows of leafy research crops, it’s a colorful oasis of more than 100 varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs.

Although the University works with organic farming off campus, this is the only acre of the 160 acres in St. Paul devoted to organic farming and open to all students.

Horticultural science professor Bud Markhart is a faculty adviser for the farm.

“It’s not only a production facility, but it’s also research, outreach and education,” Markhart said. “And it’s a unique situation since it’s student-run.”

The farm has been a student-driven operation from the start, said Courtney Tchida, student programs coordinator for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

In spring 2004 “a group of agricultural students came to the Institute and said ‘You know, there’s no place for students to really grow stuff on campus,’ ” Tchida said.

That fall the University offered the land to the students. The farm is a partnership between the institute, the college and student organization What’s Up in Sustainable Agriculture, Tchida said.

In its second season of production, the farm has five student-interns and about a dozen regular volunteers, she said. The interns run everything from sales and marketing to managing the farm daily.

Trevor Huggins, a justice and peace studies and environmental studies senior at the University of St. Thomas, is a farm manager. He is participating in the farm through an inter-college study program.

“I do whatever an extra pair of hands is needed to do on any given day,” Huggins said.

Students also conduct research projects, including experimenting with disease control in an organic setting, Tchida said.

“College is where students should get exposed to different ways of doing things,” Tchida said. “It’s really important to have this experience that otherwise students would have to go off campus to do.”
The farming itself is planned in a spring semester class Tchida teaches with the aid of faculty advisers Markhart and agronomy and plant genetics professor Paul Porter. The class looks at the results of the previous season and uses consensus-building to make decisions for the upcoming season.

The farm is funded by money from the institute, research grants and the previous year’s profits, as well as money from this summer’s farmers markets and office deliveries, Tchida said.

A primary task is also to obtain organic certification, which requires extensive record-keeping.

Despite the hassles of all the paperwork, being an example of organic and sustainable agriculture is important to the farm “to prove it can be done and to show students how,” Tchida said.

“It’s all about creating mutually beneficial relationships between the plants, to work with nature and not against it,” she said.

One way to work with nature is to grow a wide variety of plants, which is what the farm continues to do. It’s “about using biodiversity to make sustainable farming work,” Markhart said.

Markhart teaches a fall class on organic farming and said he plans to use the farm as a learning tool for his class.

Mirroring the diverse collection of vegetables on the farm is the varied group of students that work there.

“We’ve had 22 majors involved in this project so far,” Tchida said. “Many students in the class have had no experience.”

One of these students is Erik Vangsnes, an urban studies senior who had never gardened before he decided to take the farm planning class last year. He now works as one of the farm managers.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be relevant to my future, but I enjoy it and it’s rewarding,” he said. “Plus, there’s no better way to learn than doing this – working here feels like the equivalent of taking multiple semesters of classes.”

The basic desire to know more about where food comes from and how to grow it is what accounts for the diverse group of students drawn to the project, Porter said.

“It’s about having a better knowledge of how you produce some of what you eat,” he said. “It’s amazing how we’ve forgotten that in our society.”
Students are also able to learn skills in business and research, in addition to knowledge about how to grow plants, Porter said. As for the future of the farm, “if the students remain interested, it’ll continue,” he said.

At the moment, the interest is there – at least among those who spend their summer mornings hunched over cucumbers and carrots.

Environmental horticulture sophomore April Deinken is Cornercopia’s sales and marketing intern.

“I love it,” Deinken said. “If I could do this always, I would,” she said.

WHAT: Field Day
WHEN: Noon, 3 and 6 p.m. Aug. 10
WHERE: Southeast corner of Cleveland Avenue North and Larpenteur Avenue, St. Paul
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Visit sof.coafes.umn.edu or contact Courtney Tchida at (612) 625-2738.

Volunteer times are 9 a.m. to noon Mondays and Tuesdays; 2 to 7 p.m. Thursdays.

Office deliveries are available for St. Paul campus offices every Wednesday. E-mail umsof@umn.edu for more information and to be added to its listserv.