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Not Your Typical Garden Variety

It's hot, buggy, and physically demanding, but the work the students put in at the Penn State Student Farm pays off in veggies and in the acquisition of valuable skills.

Student farm
Painting and labeling stages for the vegetable crops of the Student Farm.

Created in 2016, the Student Farm is a one-acre vegetable farm physically located at the intersection of Fox Hollow Road and Big Hollow Road and managed by the Sustainability Institute. The farm focuses on growing vegetables, training Penn State students of any major in agricultural processes, providing a living laboratory for students to conduct agricultural researcher, supporting a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, and offering numerous opportunities for the greater community to learn about agriculture and local foods.

According to Leslie Pillen, Student Farm design coordinator, students work at the farm in a variety of capacities--as interns, staff members, and researchers, among other roles. They learn the latest strategies for growing organic vegetables, including how to prepare the soil, how to plant the crops, and how to manage pests. They also learn to communicate with various audiences about organic farming, including the students who visit the farm as part of their courses, the public who is invited to the farm to learn about local foods, and the paying members of their CSA. In addition, the students learn to plan events, manage volunteers, and conduct research.

Pillen notes that the College of Agricultural Sciences has been an instrumental partner in the success of the farm, providing research funds, faculty expertise, and student workers, among other contributions.

In return, the college's students, many of whom are naturally drawn to the farm, receive many benefits. "Different students have different needs at different times in their Penn State careers," says Pillen. "We've developed a whole array of connecting points; for example, we offer paid internship positions, hands-on projects for classes, and opportunities for individuals to conduct research. It's a great learning experience for students, who acquire skills they can eventually use in their future jobs."

We talked with some members of the most recent cohort of ag students to find out what motivated them to become involved with the farm and what they gained by doing so.

Deanna Homan

Deanna Homan

Hails from: State College, PA

Major: Plant Science, Horticulture Option (Sophomore)

Position at Student Farm: Staff

Most satisfying farm chores: Harvesting the produce and cultivating the beds.

Least favorite farm chore: Moving row covers off of beds.

Favorite vegetable grown on the farm: Tomatoes. There are so many varieties!

Least favorite vegetable: Hot peppers. They are just so spicy.

Lessons learned on the farm: I learned a lot about managing pests using organic practices. There were a few different methods we used on the farm, and I'm glad to have hands-on experience in that area.

First exposure to agriculture: Growing up, my family had a large vegetable and flower garden during the summer months, which I always enjoyed working in. Through that, my interest in growing plants and crops has grown along with my knowledge of the agricultural world, and I've found there is always more to learn.

Musings on agriculture: One thing I love about summertime is all the local farmers markets. More than having fresh produce to eat, I really enjoy meeting the people who manage the farms that we, as a community, support. That is something I value and care about in local farms: the community it creates.

Book on nightstand: Hinds' Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard.

Hobbies: I really enjoy playing the piano; I love to bake; and I enjoy hiking the trails around the State College area.

Izaiah Bokunewicz

Izaiah Bokunewicz

Hails from: Philadelphia, PA

Major: Plant Science (Sophomore)

Position at Student Farm: Student Farm Club co-director and head of hydroponics operations

Most satisfying farm chore: Delivering our fresh produce to on-campus dining locations. This past spring, I delivered leafy greens to Redifer Dining Commons (South Halls) by foot once per week. Through this delivery process, I saw, behind the scenes, how the dining commons function. From washing and preparing delivered produce to posting signage about the Student Farm on the salad bar, the dining commons have been very helpful and supportive.

Least favorite farm chore: Picking rocks after we till soil in the fields; it doesn't sound fun, nor is it fun.

Favorite vegetable grown on the farm: Ground cherries. They are an example of a less common crop, similar to a tomatillo, and very tasty!

Least favorite vegetable: I don't really have one.

First exposure to agriculture: Three of my uncles manage a large dairy farm in the state, Evergreen Farms, Inc. Another one of my uncles is a potato farmer at Long Acres Farms, in Tionestsa, PA. I became very interested in vegetable agriculture after a summer spent on his farm.

Future aspirations: My dream is to work with sustainable methods of indoor food production--soil-less farming, hydroponics, or aeroponics--with LED grow lights. I believe it is the future of food, especially in our urban areas and parts of the world with crazy climates or short growing seasons.

Hobbies: Spending time outside, hiking, hunting, fly-fishing.

Musings on agriculture: People don't understand the value of food and agriculture. But there is hope. And it starts with young individuals who are engaged in the production of the food, from seed until harvest.

Alexa Wilhelm

Alexa Wilhelm

Hails from: Gettysburg, PA

Major: Community, Environment, and Development (Senior)

Position at Student Farm: Undergraduate researcher

Most satisfying farm chore: Hand-weeding nutsedge. It's oddly therapeutic!

Least favorite farm chore: Hand-watering. The hose gets all muddy and tangled.

Favorite vegetable grown on the farm: The herbs--basil, sage, dill, thyme, lavender, the list goes on. I was even able to host a workshop on them!

Least favorite vegetable: Cherry tomatoes.

Memorable occurrence on the farm: We've had an ongoing battle with groundhogs all summer. One day, a group of older ladies was touring the farm when one of us spotted a rogue groundhog. The entire group of interns went after it, hurdling rows of trellised tomatoes and throwing whatever we had in our hands at the groundhog. After a wild chase, the animal dove into its hole in the eggplants and we dove right after it. When we dusted ourselves off, we realized the tour group had been watching us the entire time. It must have been quite a sight!

Skills learned on the farm: Stick-to-it-iveness, perseverance, tenacity. This is not an easy job, and I'm much tougher after a summer on the farm.

Musings on agriculture: Reminding people of the amount of love and labor that goes into a single tomato is something I believe has the power to reduce food waste and generate widespread realization that wholesome nutrition is a critical element of health and happiness.

First exposure to agriculture: I was randomly placed in a greenhouse elective in seventh grade. At the end of year, when my classmates abandoned their beautiful plants and seedlings, I took every single flat home on the bus and planted them in my backyard. We had just moved, so my garden became my new home and an instant friend. My aunt, who shares my passion, encouraged me to continue gardening and reading about agriculture.

Emilio Carrión

Emilio Carrión

Hails from: Guayaquil, Ecuador

Major: Agricultural Science (Senior)

Position at Student Farm: Staff

Most satisfying farm chore: Harvesting because after all the hard work you get food!

Least favorite farm chore: They are all equally interesting to me.

Favorite vegetable grown on the farm: Tomatoes.

Least favorite vegetable: Kale.

Memorable occurrence on the farm: During one of the volunteer days, we were spreading hay over one of the fields and we found a hidden bird nest with four eggs. The mother did not leave the nest even though we were constantly around that field during that week and during the next days. We were very surprised; it was a nice experience!

Skills learned on the farm: This experience has made me a better English speaker and listener. This will be extremely valuable if I end up working in the United States. I have also improved my time management and planning skills by working in multiple roles with the Student Farm within the areas of production, data entry, and event planning.

Musings on agriculture: Many times citizens of a country might not have a great deal of influence on the things that a government chooses to implement or not implement, but we can start changing our society by being active members of our local community. That is why I care about local sustainable agriculture, because it is a way of playing an important role toward the betterment of society.

Books on nightstand: The Market Gardener by Jean Martin Fortier, Basic Economics, Fifth Edition by Thomas Sowell, and Critical Business Skills for Success by The Great Courses.

Hobbies: Reading and playing guitar.

Sydney Downham

Sydney Downham

Hails from: Willington, CT

Major: Animal Science with Business Option (Senior)

Position at Student Farm: Staff

Most satisfying farm chore: Harvesting produce. Every Monday when we harvest I get to see the bins packed full of fresh produce and know that we worked hard and that work paid off in the form of fresh and healthy food for members of the Penn State community.

Least favorite farm chore: Hand-weeding. It can hurt my back if I do it for a long time. Luckily it isn't something that we need to do very often.

Favorite vegetable grown on the farm: Snap peas.

Least favorite vegetable: Chard.

Memorable occurrence on the farm: The Summer Solstice event that we had in June. The event was a lot of fun with live music and fresh food. Seeing such a large crowd of people of all ages enjoying the farm was really rewarding.

First exposure to agriculture: I've been studying animal science my whole life in 4-H and FFA. In high school, I took animal science classes.

Skill learned on the farm: Planning and hosting gardening workshops.

Future goals: To educate as many people as possible about what they're eating and where their food comes from. That's why I love outreach so much.

-- Sara LaJeunesse
Illustrations by Olivier Kugler