Student Farms

P5090243Student Farms are found on an increasing number of college and university campuses in North America. At many schools the student farm is an essential component of students’ sustainable agriculture (SA) learning experience. At the Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture conferences at California in 2006 and New York in 2007, there was a great deal of interest, particularly among students, but also among staff, in the role of student farms in SA education. The diversity among student farms is impressive and arriving at a generally agreed upon definition of a student farm is not easy, nor do we propose a definition here. In this discussion we focus on facilities and programs of various sizes (making no distinction between ‘farms’ and ‘gardens’) that emphasize practical and experiential, student-centered learning in sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Typically, a student farm is a place where students get practical experience in sustainable agricultural production, marketing and management. It is also common for students to have their farming experiences broaden and deepen their knowledge and practice with food and issues of health, nutrition, and social equality. Some of these experiences are integral to formal courses, but, more commonly, they are not. Student led experimentation, including both formal and informal research, is also common on student farms. However, much of the importance and value of many student farms is related to some of their other features.

DSC_0236Students have initiated many student farms, and students are involved to various degrees in farm management and decision-making. Student farms have proven to be a vital place on campus where students have had the freedom to exercise self-directed learning, critically reflective thinking, and innovation. These innovations have at times contested traditional values, thinking, and practices, in terms of both agriculture and education. Often, student farms have played a historically significant role in introducing to their campus community the discourse of organic, ecological, low-input, and sustainable agriculture. Student farms today offer a sense of place and community for students (and faculty and staff) and provide a foundation for student efforts focused on larger issues and efforts, such as developing sustainable food systems on a campus, regional or larger scale.

While some student farms have existed for more than a 30 years, many are less than a decade old. Regardless of their age, however, most students, staff, and faculty associated with student farms have a strong connection with advancing sustainable agriculture educational efforts on their respective colleges and universities.

The continued interest in and development of student farms and SA education presents opportunities to ask questions regarding the goals of such efforts. These questions span from the pragmatic to the philosophical. Some questions aim at instrumental-technical issues, while others reflect on the underlying value and purpose of education. Through the SAEA conferences and venues like this website, we explore and begin to answer some of the questions surrounding student farms and their relationship to SA education. Please join us in both answering these questions and asking new ones.

IMG_0289Discussions at past SAEA conferences have focused on the following topics:

  1. What are the challenges and advantages of having the students run the farm in relation to the quality of their learning experience and the capacity of the operation?
  2. What is the student’s role? What if the pendulum shifts too far (paid staff do too much) and the students become lazy and their experience suffers. How can we maintain balance?
  3. How can students get as many experiences as they want with increased leadership opportunities?
  4. As a farm manager, are you a role model, a facilitator, or?
  5. How valuable is it is for students to see reality and to have a real experience, like operating a CSA?
  6. How do you balance the tension between competing with other farmers in terms of sales?
  7. How do you balance the tension between the responsibilities and labor of a working CSA and the time focused on education? Can too much stress on the making-money part of the CSA make students’ educational experience suffer?
  8. How can a CSA integrate the rest of the university in a way that is not available via other methods (e.g., the Dean, other professors have shares in the CSA)?
  9. What is the balance between the “formal” piece of the sustainable agriculture curriculum, and the “informal” piece, which is often the farm?
  10. To have animals on the farm, especially larger animals, how important is it to have a “professional” farm manager, from a consistency standpoint?
  11. How do you excite faculty and students to get involved?
  12. How do you evaluate and assess the roles and values of student farms – so you can show something to administration, etc.?
How do you use season extensions, since the growing season is often in the summer and students aren’t there?
  14. How do you best coordinate between staff and student management?
  15. How do you support student accountability and ownership?
  16. How do you foster a good work ethic amongst students?
  17. How do you maintain continuity of the program/farm?

By: Damian Parr & Mark Van Horn