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Student Farm Offers Engagement Opportunities Across Campus
Pennsylvania Ag Connection - 01/27/2023

As a new growing season approaches, the Dr. Keiko Miwa Ross Student Farm prepares for another year of supporting the campus food system. While the farm can produce over 16,000 pounds of produce each year, there is more to the four-acre farm than sustainable vegetable production.

The farm collaborates with several courses each year to exemplify real-life implementations of concepts. It also serves as a space for students to develop capstone projects. For example, one capstone course regularly corresponds with the farm as a client as students work to address current issues in plant science.

Liana Burghardt, instructor for the PLANT 461 (Emerging Issues in Plant Sciences) capstone course, said that her students’ partnership with the farm is “mutually beneficial,” because students get a chance to develop skills that are often missed in a traditional classroom setting while addressing the farm’s needs.

“One of the real benefits of these group projects where they create content for a stakeholder is practicing being engaged in a partnership, getting incremental feedback, soliciting that feedback and having that entity define and guide what they're doing,” she said. “That is so different from most of the coursework that they have, but it is exactly like what happens in real-world work contexts.”

At the beginning of the semester, Burghardt meets with staff at the Student Farm to discuss their needs and brainstorm how her students’ skillsets can be utilized to address them.

“The farm provides an amazing support framework for me to create these experiences for students,” she said.

Burghardt and the staff pitch projects to the students, who spend the semester researching and designing practical solutions. At the end of the course, students practice orally presenting their proposals to diverse audiences.

“From a faculty perspective, it is so amazing to have the Student Farm as a resource and a partner in this,” Burghardt said. “It makes my life easier to know that there are people that can pitch problems and can help provide guidance to the students on topics that I can’t.”

Burghardt said that working with the farm allows students to face professional challenges head-on with a team of faculty and staff supporting them. Students practice a variety of skillsets, such as preparing for meetings, setting deadlines, responding to project feedback and using an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving.

“They tend to get a lot more fulfillment out of working on something that is going to have a tangible outcome,” she said.

The Student Farm partnered with 49 courses across seven academic colleges in 2022, reaching over 1,200 students.

Several students that have taken Burghardt’s capstone course have continued their involvement with the Student Farm through an internship, joining Student Farm Club, volunteering or attending seasonal events.

Student Farm internships are an opportunity for students of all majors and backgrounds to get involved with the food system. Interns are hired for a full growing season and gain experience sowing seeds in the field and greenhouse, recordkeeping and managing irrigation and fertilization systems, harvesting and packing vegetables, working with community partners, planning and hosting events and more.

Will McCausland, a senior studying plant science, began interning with the farm in the spring of 2022. As the farm’s volunteer and events manager, McCausland made a point to incorporate his passion for agricultural communications into his experience.

“Regardless of what you're studying, getting the experience of working in an agricultural field and understanding where your food comes from is something I think everyone should be able to experience,” McCausland said. “Even if you don't understand the science of plants and growing, you're going to learn how to do that in a safe and educational way.”

The Student Farm, a unit of Student Affairs, is constantly working to become more sustainable throughout the growing process. Some of its practices include limiting packaging material, using integrated pest management, composting organic waste and avoiding pesticides.

McCausland said that he was surprised by the amount of calculation that goes into sustainable agriculture based on factors like weather, disease and pest cycles.

“There is so much complexity in agriculture that I didn't expect until I actually got to work in the system,” he said. “You need time management and meticulous planning for every crop you grow.”

His favorite parts of the internship were organizing farm events and watching the crops grow from small, fragile seedlings to strong, nourishing plants that sometimes extended several feet tall.

“Preparing for the Summer Solstice event, which everyone got to come and enjoy, was really worth the effort to make the farm look nice and show off the crops we’ve been growing,” he said.

Over 5,600 people were engaged in the farm’s 49 events last year.

Alongside the farm interns is a highly active Student Farm Club made up of students of nearly every academic college and interest. Student Farm Club manages a rooftop garden and hydroponic greenhouse, organizes an annual plant sale, engages the community in topics like nutrition and food justice, builds partnerships across campus and serves as a space for students to explore any topic related to food, agriculture or sustainability.

One of the club’s most popular programs is Cooking Collab, a bi-weekly opportunity for students to learn, cook and enjoy a new recipe. Over the past few years, Cooking Collabs have highlighted specific vegetables, cultural cuisines and guest chefs.

Cooking Collab is currently organized by Medi Setiawan, a senior studying material science and engineering. Setiawan joined the club last spring because she wanted to learn more about sustainable living and gardening.

“I’ve always been passionate about cooking global cuisines and healthy food, especially if it’s to cook for other people,” she said. “I didn’t have the platform to promote these concepts until I found Cooking Collab. It was the perfect chance for me to address my passion and to bring more diverse cooking knowledge to the State College community.”

All Penn State students are invited to sign up for Cooking Collabs to learn about fun, nutritious eating, even if they are not a member of Student Farm Club. Students walk away from the experience with a full stomach and new friends.

“Food is also always about people,” Setiawan said. “Things get way more compelling when we become familiar with the stories and culture behind a dish and create new bonds while cooking together.”

Yet another way that students experience the Student Farm in an academic setting is through class field trips. AGECO 144 professor Heather Karsten, who teaches her students principles and practices of organic agriculture, said she brings her classes to the farm several times throughout the semester.

“I take advantage of the farm as a kind of living laboratory and case study,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to look at plants at all different stages of development, practice identifying plant families and how they're rotated and look at lots of examples of integrated pest management.”

Karsten has been taking her classes to visit the farm since it began in 2016, noting that the on-campus resource is far more accessible than a costly off-campus alternative. She said that the farm allows her to show students a diversity of plants at different growing stages within a real farming system, which is far more complex than if she were to bring a plant sample into a classroom.

“As the farm has expanded with more diverse practices, more high tunnels, more land and more types of crops, we’ve seen more and more opportunities to integrate it into our lab time,” she said.

Karsten also encourages students to participate in the farm’s educational events, such as this year’s Food Justice Colloquia. She said that the events are opportunities for students to explore topics that there is not time to cover in their classes.

“I think it’s great to see an interdisciplinary, living example of what students from lots of different majors have done to create this productive, organic greenly-designed food production system,” she said. “Students really enjoy those days when we get out to the farm.”

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