The dining halls at the University of Illinois have fresh, local food, even before the spring growing season has begun. The salad bar is full of bok choy, spinach and mixed greens. It's crisp and bursting with flavor and it's grown one mile away.
"It's about being able to have the opportunity for fresh available food in times you wouldn't normally be able to," said Zach Grant, Sustainable Student Farm manager.
When the daytime temperatures reach a high of 45 degrees, and at night they're well below frost temperatures, Grant has found a way to make these greens flourish.
"The high tunnels allow you to alter nature in the most simple way," he said. "You are creating a microclimate to extend the season."
The farm has three high tunnels on its four-acre site, allowing to jumpstart the growing season for cool crops. The structures are do-it-yourself versions of greenhouses.
Two years ago, Grant and volunteers built them from the ground up.
"Wind is the greatest enemy, it damages the plastic," said Grant. "Constructing them was a little daunting, but in the long term it doesn't outweigh the benefits."
One of the main benefits is energy efficiency — helping the farm live up to its name — being sustainable.
"It enhances the window of opportunity to work with nature," said Grant. "You're using some modern technology, but the high tunnels are a hybrid of technology and nature."
Grant explained that efficiency in the high tunnels depends on the time of year and the crops. Sunlight is the key factor and in the winter it's lower in the sky than during the peak of the harvest season. A high tunnel farmer can expect a longer germination period than normal.
"The process makes it more complex, but it allows you to still grow," said Grant.
Here in Illinois, the season is extended significantly. Instead of six months of harvesting, farmers have eight months.
The high tunnels have added character to the farm as it's becoming a landmark on the Illinois campus. More students are interested in the process from dirt to dining halls. About 90 percent of the stuff grown on the farm is served in dining halls. The other 10 percent is sold to students and faculty walking on the quad in a market stand.
"It's great because the farm is all about education. It provides great fresh produce to the new dorms," said Ashley Turk, a recent graduate. "When they sell the produce on the quad, it educates people and shows them what's it's all about."
Turk graduated in December, but is sticking around campus, volunteering at the farm until she goes into the Peace Corps.
"Working there is relevant to what I want to do in the Peace Corp.," she said. "It's a great hands-on, versatile experience, and it's what exactly I'll be doing later in life."
Turk explained that it was a convenient and easy volunteering experience. Signing up was simple, no previous experience was required, and everyone is nice, chill and talkative.
"We worked as much as we could and then we left," she said. "Everyone working there is really similar, but if it's your first time it's easy to just dig right in."
No pun intended.