Rooted in Community

Thanks in part to a University seed grant in support of the Sustainable Food Systems Program, the Student Farm is transforming education through engaged scholarship and outreach.

While a cold Pennsylvania winter typically means most farms and plants lie bare and dormant, life is thriving in Penn State’s greenhouses at University Park thanks to the Student Farm.

As part of the Sustainable Food Systems Program, the Penn State Student Farm provides hands-on learning and community outreach opportunities while developing a model for local, sustainable food systems.

Staffed by club members, interns, and student and community volunteers, the Student Farm grows crops ranging from tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce to flowers, fibers, and dye plants. In the 2017 season, the farm grew and sold approximately 10,000 lb. of produce through its Campus Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and a partnership with Housing, Food Services, and Residence Life.

“We educate Penn State students and members of the community on food systems, agriculture, and sustainability,” said Olivia Hort, the farm’s communications intern and a senior majoring in public relations. “We also run a farm-to-campus initiative, which provides local produce for the University Park dining halls and some of the Penn State-run restaurants.”

In December 2017, the University awarded the Sustainable Food Systems Program a seed grant to expand the program and farm to other Penn State campus locations while supporting Penn State’s strategic goal to transform education. In addition to the seed grant, the future of the farm will be supported by an endowment from the 2018 Class Gift.

Both the seed grant and class gift will be crucial as the farm continues to grow both on campus and in the community.

From Campus to Community

Locally, the Student Farm partners with the Centre County Master Gardener Program, a volunteer-based program supporting the mission and outreach of Penn State Extension. Every year, the farm collaborates with the program’s Home Grown Project, which helps lower-income families grow their own food by distributing vegetable plants and seeds to clients at Centre County food banks and helping establish vegetable gardens at apartment complexes.  

“Last year, with the help of the Student Farm, we served about 100 families at three area food banks, providing over 1,000 vegetable plants and numerous packets of seeds,” said Kate Hynes, co-leader of the Home Grown Project and co-curricular program manager for the Department of Human Development and Family Studies’ World Campus programs.

In mid-March, teams of farm club members, interns, and members of the Master Gardener Program gathered in the Headhouse I greenhouse at University Park to get an early start on the growing season.

“Our food choices are one of the major ways we impact our environment, so for students, it’s really important to learn more about making food choices that will have a wider and better impact.” —Leslie Pillen

By starting seeds in a controlled environment like the greenhouse, members of the Student Farm can safely grow and monitor their young crops without the potential threat of predators, weeds, or extreme weather.

“Here at Penn State, we have amazing facilities and access to these greenhouses at an affordable price,” said Leslie Pillen, associate director for the Sustainable Food Systems Program and the Student Farm. “Starting some of our vegetables this early wouldn’t be possible without this access.”

Once spring weather arrives, seedlings will either be sold at the farm's annual Plant Sale or transplanted to the one-acre field at Fox Hollow and Big Hollow roads where they’ll continue to grow until ready for harvest later in the season.

For vegetables that aren’t resistant to cold weather, like tomatoes and peppers, the farm’s help and Penn State’s climate-controlled greenhouse space has been instrumental to the Home Grown Project’s success.

“This year, they are growing even more plants for us in the greenhouse, which will allow us to serve even more families,” Hynes said. “Not only does the Student Farm donate space in the greenhouse for these plants, but they have students there every day caring for the plants. We are truly grateful for their hard work and dedication.”

Planting Seeds of Sustainability

In addition to promoting local food systems, the farm also serves as a living laboratory for students and community members wanting to learn more about agriculture and sustainability.

“More and more, people are interested in where our food comes from, and the farm is a place where they can have a hands-on experience with that,” Hort said. “It’s really nice to have a place on campus where people can come and learn.”

A student carrying pallets of plants

Learning in the field

The Student Farm provides transformative educational experiences for students like Bowen Zheng, a junior majoring in nutritional sciences and an upcoming summer intern with the farm. As part of his undergraduate field experience, Zheng will learn about food production, apply his nutrition training to develop new materials for the farm, and help teach healthy eating and cooking habits. 

Image: Dennis Maney

“Here at Penn State, we have amazing facilities and access to these greenhouses at an affordable price. Starting some of our vegetables this early wouldn’t be possible without this access.” —Leslie Pillen

According to Pillen, the skills and experiences learned on the farm extend far beyond fields of soil and seeds.

“It’s very much by the students and for the students,” Pillen said. “Our food choices are one of the major ways we impact our environment, so for students, it’s really important to learn more about making food choices that will have a wider and better impact.”

For more information on getting involved with community outreach events, volunteering, or the CSA program, visit the Student Farm’s website

Featured image: Haitham Al-Abdali, a Student Farm club member, harvests greens from the farm's one-acre field. Photo by Michelle Bixby