On the north end of the Illinois quad on any given Thursday between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., there sits a small tent, housing several bins of fresh produce and a few sun-tanned students. This is the Sustainable Student Farm’s produce stand, where 15 percent of the farm’s produce is sold. Tomatoes, squash, and peppers are the stand’s biggest sellers, but the produce also includes beets, lettuce, different herbs, kale, radishes, and more.
Though the produce stand is a fun addition to campus during the summer and early fall months, the Sustainable Student Farm’s primary mission is to provide fresh-locally grown food to students through the university dining halls. And since it was first started in 2008, it has provided approximately four tons of produce each year.
Several things fell into place in late 2008 to allow for the establishment of the farm. Two people new to campus shared a desire to establish a student-run produce farm; Dawn Aubrey was hired as director of the university’s dining services, and Bruce Branham was hired into the Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences department. With the help of NRES professors Wes Jarrell and Michelle Wander, and with funding from the Student Sustainability Committee, they launched the Student Sustainable Farm.
But having a student farm isn’t what distinguishes the University of Illinois from its peers. Many institutions across the country have some version of a student farm. It’s the multi-disciplinary collaborations that make Illinois’ farm a real agricultural gem.
The student farm utilizes the diversity and intelligence of Illinois students to make the farm not only operational, but also beneficial. From architecture students designing the structures on the farm to the engineers contributing all-electric delivery vehicles and the off-grid solar panels to graphic designers constructing the website, the farm is a resource for practical experience and experimentation for students across a variety of majors.
“It’s something that we’re proud of,” says Zack Grant, the former director of the farm, who led efforts in training, research, outreach and extension. He now works as an urban agriculture educator with U. of I. Extension in Cook County, Illinois. “My goal is to get it to be a permanent fixture on campus. Everyone knows what the Morrow Plots are. I would like the student farms to be similar.”
The farm is operated by the director along with an assistant manager and a handful of student, summer employees, many of whom complete internships. Outside of that small group, the farm receives volunteer help from between 200 and 400 students per year. And they’re not just looking for help from students with a background in agriculture.
Illinois alumna Mackenzie Ehr, who majored in environmental studies, was one of the farm’s summer interns. She had no experience with agriculture before she came across the farm while searching for a long-term volunteer opportunity.
“I’ve learned so much,” said Ehr. “It’s tiring, but it’s so much fun.”
In addition to providing educational, research and dining opportunities, the farm also has another claim to fame – assisting in several Guinness World Records. For the last three years, produce from the farm has been used in an annual record attempt during new student convocation.
In 2011, produce from the farm helped Illinois to create the “largest smoothie” ever at 330 gallons. In 2012, Illinois claimed the title for “most people husking corn” at 3,463. In 2013, Illinois created the “largest serving of salsa” weighing 6,840 pounds. And in 2014, 1000 pounds of tomatoes from the farm were used to create the world’s largest jar of spread.
“Our Guinness World Record Attempt is a great way for students to have a shared, memorable experience at the beginning of the academic year,” said Alma R. Sealine, the director of University Housing.
To learn more about the Sustainable Student Farm, its research projects, and its collaboration with University Housing, visit their website, thefarm.illinois.edu, or visit them on Twitter and Facebook.