Student organic farm reaps success

by Liala Helal


In the middle of rows and acres of conventional crop lines lies a corner of variety and color. It sows determination, grows experience and harvests student satisfaction and success. It’s Cornercopia, a small, student-run organic farm on the St. Paul campus.

From flowers to edible weeds, and from eggplants to parsley, the student farm contains a large variety of plant species in a 1-acre land plot. It began through a student group, and sells to co-ops, Hopkins school district, two local restaurants and the campus farmer’s market.

“This will be the only organic land on campus for students to experience this kind of in-the-dirt, real-life experience with plants,” said David Campbell, a University student and farm intern.

“We’re not reading about them in a textbook here, we’re actually coming across real problems and dealing with them,” he said.

During the first week of the farmer’s market, the student farm sold out within 45 minutes.

“We were just kind of mobbed,” said Jared Ashling, a University student and farm manager.

Thirteen interns work on the farm, and each has a research project he or she is in charge of, varying from consumer motivation to cut flower production.

Courtney Tchida, one of the instructors for the class who created a business plan for the farm, said professors told them it would be hard to grow on campus without chemicals.

“They suspected there would be a lot of disease and insect problems, which luckily, we haven’t really seen this year too much,” said Tchida, who is also part of a group that received land and funding for the farm.

Despite the many challenges students face, including working in the heat and coming to consensus when making decisions, the farm has been a success so far, Ashling said.

The farm is important to campus because it is the only one of its kind, Campbell said.

“It’s one of the most diverse places you can go on campus,” he said. “In one little 20-by-4-foot slice, we’ve got more species than in 17 other acres.”

Sometimes, running things smoothly is a challenge when the students are new to the farm, he said. Organic farms run very differently than conventional farms.

“Instead of a quick-fix technological thing, we have to think things through ecologically and really develop an entire systemic, holistic plan for everything,” he said.

University student and farm intern Deborah Garrido, who is in charge of the edible weeds plot, said having hands-on experience on the farm has changed her perspective on plants.

“I stopped seeing plants I couldn’t identify as weeds and understood that a lot of plants have uses; I just didn’t necessarily know what they were Ö yet,” she said.

Faculty support and students who “really believed in what we were doing and were willing to put in long hours” made the farm a success, she said.

“I’m really proud when I go to the co-op and I see something that we grew, or I see people at the market stand clamoring to buy the food that we grew and to know that the food is going into the community and is being appreciated,” Garrido said.

When summer ends, the farm will need more volunteers, Ashling said.

“In the future, if funding ever becomes a problem, it’s the volunteers that will make the farm happen,” he said.

Garrido said her biggest concern is finding a way to maintain the farm’s funding.

The students plan to create a perennial guild, which will grow apple trees, hazel nuts, grapes and raspberry bushes, by the end of the summer. These are types of plants that don’t have to be replanted every year.

The farm will have a field day at 10 a.m. on Aug. 4, when the interns will present their research projects to the community.