The inaugural year at the University of Illinois' student-run farm, 2009, found the success it was looking for. The farm has begun its second summer, and this Memorial Day weekend, student interns and volunteers were busy spreading mulch, installing drip irrigation, supplying university dining halls with cool season crops and beginning to harvest summer crops.
"We're working on twice as much land with twice as many crops as last year," said Farm Manager Zach Grant.
Initially, the two-acre farm harvested 12 to 14 vegetable crops such as sweet corn and tomatoes. This summer there are 25 different vegetables.
"We're really expanding from last year. More students are helping with the bigger area of land and produce," said Grant.
Grant mentioned the new installation of 10,000 square feet of "high tunnels," a type of greenhouse, used in the winter.
"It helped through the winter and spring production. We've been supplying the dining halls with local food since the end of March," he said.
The university dining halls feed not only students, but summer campers involved in Illinois athletic and music camps.
"Right now we're giving them a variety of salad greens. Swiss chard, spinach, the cool season crops," said Grant.
Last year the farm supplied the university with more than 20,000 pounds of local produce.
"We only had two interns and myself working last year. We're making it more formal this year, trying to involve research and recruit more students," he said.
The interest in local foods is one of the major components of the university's latest push for sustainability.
Not long ago, students voted to increase a fee supporting eco-friendly issues, including the farm. The initial fee was $5 per semester, included in tuition cost. Since then, it has increased to $14. More money will offer more opportunities for Grant and the students to expand production.
The Student Sustainability Committee is responsible both for the fee increase and granting the farm its initial fees. Project funding involved the fully granted $50,000 to get the farm started. With an additional money increase, the farm will continue to grow even more varieties of fruits and vegetables.
The student farm is a learning opportunity for students interested in careers in agriculture. Senior Sam Wonsover hopes to call himself a farmer someday. He's majoring in Earth, Systems, Society and Environment and has learned all about the farm's low-impact production system. He's active in the organic food industry and has learned about the alternatives to pesticide use. Natural fertilizers like compost and cover crops are used throughout the farm. Last week Wonsover worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., planting 1,200 tomato plants and harvesting 60 pounds of salad greens.
"The bok choy is doing beautifully. We've harvested 120 pounds of it and we still have a bunch more," said student intern Sam Wonsover.
In addition to harvesting, students are spreading mulch — a lot of mulch. Wonsover and a few other students spread 27 rows, 400 feet in length, of the black plastic mulch.
"I know there are criticisms of using plastic in the organic industry, but it will save us a lot of extra work in the long run," said Wonsover.
The students used about two miles worth of the mulch to heat up the soil for the 15,000 transplants that grow better in warmer soil.
"It's a lot of work now, but it will help us down the road," he said.
The local food movement
In addition to learning about new ways to harvest, students have realized the importance of local food.
The farm is located just a few miles outside of the main campus. It greatly minimizes carbon emissions involved in the transportation process.
"Instead of getting tomatoes from Mexico 4,000 miles away, you're getting something that's been growing one mile away," said Wonsover.
The farm is trying to meet the high demand for local food.
"We're harvesting constantly. So far, we've harvested and sold 800 pounds of food total. We only started a few weeks ago," said Wonsover.
The farm will continue to expand and students are excited for new growing opportunities. Until then, they're learning how to adjust to the manual labor of farming.
"It's really intense. I'm really working my body, but I'm loving every minute of it," said Wonsover.