By Katie Stannard
The chard is almost ready, the bell peppers are coming along, and everyone’s excited about the pickles and the watermelon.
Knowing that seeds must be sown and plants must be planted in order to grow the crops and produce the produce, University of Michigan Campus Farm student staff have worked throughout most of the pandemic closure. Grateful to have Campus Farm work as a viable opportunity in the midst of other canceled summer jobs, an experienced staff assembled this spring and summer to keep the farm growing.
A field of produce growing at the University of Michigan Campus Farm. The farm remained open during the COVID-19 closure because food and agriculture production were deemed critical by the governor of Michigan, and because U-M saw the farm as an essential operation for growing and providing food to both MDining and to the Maize and Blue Cupboard food pantry. The Cupboard serves food-insecure students on the U-M campus at a time of increased demand and critical need for these services.
Campus Farm student workers Abby Hackett, Lydia Hsu, and Becca Harley at the wash-pack station.
Riding the Wave
While many farms taper their production toward the end of the summer, Campus Farm is ramping up for their busiest months from August through October. With the uncertainty of the pandemic’s trajectory on this fall’s orders, they’ve kept sowing and harvesting—because they have to be ready.
The staff spoke about how this time of year there’s always more to do (weeding, tilling, planting, harvesting, packing, selling). Some students talked about the analogy of riding a wave—and needing to keep up and not fall off!
The Campus Farm team is guided by farm management fellow Abby Hackett, a 2019 grad. Abby started just as the impact of the pandemic began to ripple through the U.S.
Similar to last year’s team, four full-time farm-worker staff are assisted by a number of part-time staff. Four past summer interns are part of the group, providing their vital experience and expertise.
Thanks to well-established and strict safety protocols, Campus Farm staff were able to quickly adapt for safe distancing and separation among sites and tasks.
Helen Rhines sows seeds and transplants seedlings, Becca Harley focuses on food safety and orders, Lydia Hsu coordinates student engagement, to name just a few.
Hackett and farm Manager Jeremy Moghtader planned crops based on previous years, as well as conversations with MDining chefs about their needs and interests.
Because of the COVID-warranted shift in how food is packaged in dining halls (for example, no salad “bars,” but pre-packaged salads), they were able to make some fast changes with the crops sown to accommodate: fewer cherry tomatoes and growing beans and watermelon for the first time. “COVID gave us new crops!” jokes Harley.
Collaboration and Innovation
Through an M-Dining partnership with the Ann Arbor-based company The Brinery, Campus Farm baby cukes will become pickles. This year has also presented the unique opportunity to get more involved in the local food-production scene through selling produce to Argus Farm Stop and Food Gatherers.
Another recent successful innovation–string trellising–began last year in the hoop house hosting tomatoes. Tomatoes are grown vertically along strings attached to an overhead system, maximizing upward growth in hoop houses with limited horizontal space.
String trellising in a hoop house at the Campus Farm. String trellising maximizes upward growth in hoop houses with limited horizontal space.
The newly planted watermelon fields–requested by MDining–would have been empty in a “normal” year, and everyone is excited to learn and watch the watermelons grow. Other staff were planting brassica on freshly plowed fields, covering the rows with buried row covers to mitigate the problem of flea beetles. Just like in a home garden, Campus Farm staff have to address and solve gardening problems, but on a much larger scale.
Plant Sale Pivoting
Lydia Hsu knows firsthand the trials and tribulations of suddenly changing our spring plant sale from in-person to online. When just a few critical staff returned to Matthaei-Nichols, she and other staff carefully sowed and tended 184 varieties of herbs, flowers, and vegetables, amounting to over 7500 plants for this spring’s online plant sale. Despite the challenges, the sale was an enormous success. Leftover plants from the sale were sold to Argus Farm Stop, Food Gatherers and Dining Services, with additional donations to Maize and Blue Cupboard, U-M’s food pantry for students.
Pictured: Lettuce plants growing in a Campus Farm field.
Students Supporting Students
The farm staff stressed two important points. One, they’re careful in their pricing not to undercut local farmers who also sell to Argus, recognizing the pricing strategy is a balance of trying to sell vs. not pricing others out of the market. Two, Campus Farm staff are especially pleased to donate produce to Maize and Blue Cupboard—and that they plan on donating as much as possible in order to help out fellow students.
As I wrapped up my interviews with the student workers, we discussed the challenges of working outside all day in the heat. I assumed that the workers would be able to revive in air conditioning. Not so, as most live in student housing without air conditioning, and they survive by “taking a lot of cold showers!” This small fact adds even more to my admiration for this terrific team whose perseverance and dedication is clearly evident in the work they’ve done throughout the season. From watering to tilling, sowing, harvesting, and packing, they are truly on the front lines of fresh produce production for the campus.
About the author: In a normal year, Katie Stannard would be coordinating and onboarding the summer interns at Matthaei-Nichols and helping the visitor engagement team run the visitor center at Matthaei. This year—along with a months-long closure and absent student interns—Katie’s been helping out in a big way with our social media and with blog posts, including this series about staff happenings behind the scenes during these extraordinary times.
Katie received her Master Gardener certification in 1999, and has years of experience with heirloom flower bulbs and small business operations. She is passionate about encouraging kids of all ages to “go outside!” and explore the natural world. Her current gardening interests include children’s gardens, native plants, and everlasting yet nonintrusive perennials. Katie volunteers for her kids’ school, for Carleton College as an alumni volunteer, and in her neighborhood to organize community events. She holds an M.A. from Carnegie Mellon University in literary and cultural theory, and a B.A. from Carleton College in English.
All photos by Katie Stannard.