With strong support from the university and from students, Campus Farm and Sustainable Food Program managers Jeremey Moghtader and Alex Bryan bring continuity and expertise to a growing food movement at Michigan.
The U-M Campus Farm began in 2012 on a small plot of land near the Project Grow garden at U-M Matthaei Botanical Gardens on Dixboro Rd.
While the actual growing of plants started that year, the idea for the farm first took root in the late 1990s, according to Matthaei-Nichols director and U-M School of Natural Resources professor Bob Grese. Several faculty members, in particular Catherine Badgley and Ivette Perfecto, introduced a course in sustainable agriculture. Not long after, students and faculty began asking for places on campus where food gardens could be located, Grese recalls.
|University of Michigan students working at the Campus Farm in the summer.
The students are enthusiastic about working at the farm and about growing
plants that are used for food.
The campus gardening trend picked up steam with the formation of the student gardening group Cultivating Community in 2004. This collaborative project by U-M students, faculty and staff, community members, and Matthaei-Nichols to grow vegetables and herbs on campus made possible a demonstration food garden at the Ginsberg Center on campus. As interest in campus food and gardening continued to grow, Grese explains, a group of students in Dr. Michael Schriberg’s class “Sustainability in the Campus” developed a proposal for creating a campus farm in 2011. “The students approached me about locating it at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens site,” says Grese, “and submitted a proposal to the newly created Planet Blue Student Initiative Fund.” The idea became a reality when Planet Blue provided the nascent farm with $42,000 of seed funding.
|Jeremy Moghtader (left) is the new Campus Farm
manager. Standing next to Jeremy is Alex Bryan,
manager of the sustainable food program.
New Managers Bring Continuity to the Farm and Campus Food Movements
The campus farm coincided with other food-related initiatives at U-M, says Grese. This included hiring of new faculty in LSA’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, School of Public Health, School of Natural Resources and Environment, and Taubman College as part of the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. This was followed by the creation of an undergraduate minor and a graduate certificate program in Sustainable Food Systems, and the growth in a number of student organizations devoted to sustainable food and the creation of the Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP). With all of this energy and commitment, Grese says, “the Campus Farm has become a centerpiece for Matthaei-Nichols of our commitment to environmental sustainability and to our desire to engage students and classes in hands-on learning.”
Given the complexity of the various food-related projects and the nature of campus life and its changing cast of students, the need for a farm manager and for someone who could coordinate the student food groups was recognized early on.
In the fall 2016, Jeremy Moghtader and Alex Bryan were brought on board. Both are U-M alumni and bring extensive experience. Jeremy was most recently Director of Programs at the Michigan State University Student Organic Farm. Alex was Director of Agricultural Programs for the Greater Lansing Food Bank. Together they’ll help nurture longer-term relationships with everything from potential markets for the farms produce to faculty teaching courses related to sustainable agriculture, Grese says.
Running a farm is a group effort. Moghtader sees himself as a facilitator and collaborator. “My wish list,” he says, “is to engage openly with people and hear what they have to say. I’m a deeply collaborative person, and that’s one reason that the farm manager job appealed to me.” The Campus Farm is a place where strong student leadership makes a difference, Moghtader says. “I also see the farm as a nexus of coursework and thriving learning opportunities for faculty and students,” he adds.
Alex Bryan’s position as manager of U-M Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP) falls under U-M Dining. Alex was brought in to help coordinate the many student groups on campus that are linked to food-related programs. These include Ann Arbor Student Food Co., Food Recovery Network; Friends of the Campus Farm, Maize and Blue Cupboard, UMBees, and several more. “The dining connection is related to student life,” says Alex. Food touches students’ lives in so many ways, and Alex’s mission is to bring together the several student-driven strands of the food movement on campus.
|The student beekeeping group UMBees regularly meets in the Campus Farm,
where there’s an apiary. When students study bees in the farm, they not only
get to observe the honeybee up close; they also make the connection between
pollination and plants and how everything in the ecosystem fits together.
Early on, students and faculty recognized the long-term need for a farm manager. And within just a few years of having the farm at Matthaei that need became even more pressing. In the first few years students and Matthaei-Nichols staff made the farm work with a series of dedicated and enthusiastic student interns who served as farm managers during the summer, and additional students who worked in a similar capacity during the school year. “We hope that with a farm manager in place we’ll be better able to focus the farm efforts and provide greater stability in farm operations from year to year, “says Grese. “While some of our staff had direct farming experience, they didn’t have the time or perhaps the right expertise to answer the kinds of questions and challenges we encountered.”
If the notion of a farm on campus feels like a new idea, it’s not. Arguably the oldest campus farm in the country started at Berea College in Kentucky in 1871.
Back then the majority of U.S. jobs were in agriculture, so having a campus with a farm made sense. It was about training future farmers in a line of work that touches everyone’s life: the production of food.
Today’s super-efficient food production and growing methods allow fewer farms to produce more food. But these economies of scale come at a price, as Laura Sayre and Sean Clark explain in their book Fields of Learning: The Student Farm Movement in North America. The modern industrial farm relies on steady supplies of fresh water, cheap energy and stable climates, they write, even as those resources decline as we move into the twenty-first century. “We now have to look at new ways to farm that rely more on ‘resilience’ and ecological principles rather than industrial principles,” according to Sayre and Clark.
|A few interesting facts about US farming you might not have known.
|The timing is perfect for campus farms. There’s a food revolution across the land, one that opens up opportunities for young farmers, Sayre and Clark observe. The revolution is driven by concerns about the links between food production and the environment, human health, food safety, and food justice. “The emerging generation,” they conclude, “fits this food revolution very well since these farmers share many of these same concerns and desires.”
In the 12 years Moghtader worked as the director of Michigan State University’s organic farm, “the perspective on food has undergone an extreme expansion. People want to consume food that’s minimally processed, whether it’s a niche brand or on a grocery store shelf.” There’s so much national food awareness captured by people like Michael Pollan or Michele Obama, Moghtader adds. “Food and farming are such a part of who we are, with impacts that ripple outward and touch everything.”
Students on campuses everywhere are plugging into a well of interest in the environment, equality, and issues of justice surrounding food. “It’s exciting to see the intellectual engagement around food,” Moghtader says. “The Campus Farm stands as the nexus of these hopes and dreams.”
We face complex challenges for transforming food systems toward environmental sustainability and social justice, says Jennifer Blesh, assistant professor in the U-M School of Natural Resources & Environment and a member of the farm manager search committee. New approaches and a new generation of scholars and practitioners are needed who can collaborate in an interdisciplinary way, she adds. “To help students develop these competencies and skills, we need to increase opportunities for engaged and experiential learning about agriculture and all aspects of the food system.”
|During the fall and winter, students gather in one of the
greenhouses at Matthaei. There will soon be a hoop house
to extend the growing season but until then students had to use
the greenhouse space at Matthaei to grow plants in the winter.
Hoop House Will Extend Growing Season and Engage Students More in the Farm
|The hoop house begins to rise. Eventually, the outside
will be covered with plastic. Then plants that tolerate
some cold will be planted. Because the hoop house
extends the growing season, students will be able to
engage with the farm during the academic year.
One highly visible part of the Campus Farm that passersby can see from the road is the new hoop house. The hoop house, Moghtader explains, brings a a lot of diversity for growing more food over a longer season. It changes the economics and the opportunities in growing food, Moghtader says. “It also allows students to engage with growing food, because students are traditionally here during the fall and winter months and not during the growing season.” The hoop house, Moghtader continues, allows you to plant to the end of October. These are cold hardy crops, he says. And while the hoop house doesn’t keep the plants from freezing it does increase the ambient temperature inside. The hoop house, also known as a passive solar greenhouse, is an agricultural concept that ‘s been around a long time in various forms. Think the bell jar placed over vegetables, or a cold frame used to let light in but protect plants from the cold. All of these concepts, old and new, work on the principal of using the sun to warm the interior and dramatically extend the growing season.