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No Tassel: Alumna's Early Farm Work Doesn't Deter

Alumna and Penn State Student Farm Club facilitator, Leslie Pillen
Leslie Pillen

Leslie Pillen

Standing on her tiptoes, she reached as far as she could, but barely brushed the tassel with the tips of her fingers. "Ugh!" she shouted. Frustrated, she sank back onto her heels and surveyed her surroundings. The corn spread out around her, acre upon acre, in every direction. It was the summer before eighth grade, and Leslie Pillen had been hired by a local farmer to detassel corn--remove the tassels from one variety so it can be cross-bred with another variety.

Pillen grew up in central Nebraska, where corn is king and agriculture touches everyone's lives. She hated the job of detasseling because she was too short to reach the tassels. "It was miserable and lonely out there," she says.

Despite her aversion to working in corn fields, Pillen did end up pursuing a career in agriculture. She studied horticulture at the University of Nebraska, earning a bachelor's degree in 2006. Upon graduating, she took a job at Community CROPS, a nonprofit incubator farm in Lincoln, Nebraska. There, she was in charge of training new farmers and helping them to run a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. "We started with a 21-member CSA," says Pillen. "By the time I left, we had more than 100 members."

Pillen moved to State College in 2011 and pursued a master's degree in rural sociology at Penn State. Her thesis focused on the challenges and opportunities--especially with regard to land acquisition--faced by beginning farmers in the northeastern United States.

"Many beginning farmers are first-generation farmers, and there's no land in their families," says Pillen. "Often, these beginning farmers will lease farmland from people who have small acreages, but this can pose problems. For example, I spoke with a farmer who had rented land from a non-farmer owner. They had asked him to stop working at 1:00 in the afternoon so she could have privacy in her pool. There can be cultural misunderstandings that need to be addressed."

Pillen was offered the job of design coordinator at the Student Farm at Penn State in 2014. Housed within the Penn State Sustainability Institute, the Student Farm is a component of the Sustainable Food Systems Program.

"At the farm, our mission is to educate people about sustainability in the food system in a hands-on, real-world way with a goal of building community and increasing access to local foods," says Pillen.

Pillen works closely with Penn State students of all majors to carry out this mission. She oversees them as they plant, harvest, and sell the crops produced on the farm. She also supervises them as they create and deliver outreach programs to the public.

"Being at Penn State is exciting because I get to work with students and faculty members to improve the public's understanding of agriculture," says Pillen. "We've had a lot of success so far and I look forward to seeing what the future brings for the Student Farm."

--Sara LaJeunesse