New Kids on the Farm. New Farm on the Block.

Walking into the Market Place on any given day, most students expect to find shelves stocked with snacks, beverages flowing from machines and hot meals ready to be scooped onto plates. When the soup runs out, another pot quickly replaces it, and students continue with their daily routine of classes, activities and eventually, more eating. What journey brings the food we consume to our plates? According to statistics in Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles.

Although I am, of course, aware that food does not manifest itself from thin air, food production took on a whole new definition for me and three other Gustavus students over January Interim Experience. Volunteering on small, organic farms for the month, we got our hands dirty learning firsthand the age-old process that brings food from the Earth to our kitchens: agriculture.

“Agriculture is the backbone of our society,” Senior Biology and Environmental Studies Major Cat Wiechmann said. Working with the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, Wiechmann was the Farm Immersion Intern over January. “I lived on six different [Minnesota] farms and worked,” Wiechmann said. She found the hands-on experience exceeded anything she could have learned in a traditional classroom.

“Farmers all over the world will tell you there are some things you can’t learn from a book,” Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation Director Jim Dontje said, arguing the energy and time that goes into producing food falls into that category.

Senior English Major Alison Glenn agreed. Having volunteered on Twin Oaks Farm, an organic chicken farm in the Florida panhandle, her agricultural knowledge was slim prior to this experience. “Before January, I’d been to one other farm on a sixth grade field trip. My farming experience there consisted of approaching a cow, squeezing its udder and running away,” Glen said. “So I definitely was able to learn a lot by working eight hours a day with chickens, crops and construction.”

“Growing up, I didn’t know any farmers, and I don’t remember ever having visited a farm,” Senior Environmental Studies Major Eliza Swedenborg said. Swedenborg also spent the month working on an organic farm in North Fork, California. Through an international organization that creates a network for interested volunteers and farmers willing to host workers, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), Swedenborg became connected with Kern Family Farm, a small operation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

While Wiechmann spent the majority of her time working with livestock, including cows, sheep, llamas and hogs, Swedenborg became acquainted with plenty of vegetables in California’s warmer climate, enjoying the opportunity to become more connected to the land that yields our food. “I learned a lot about growing vegetables,” Swedenborg said. “Only 1 percent of the American population farms, so it makes sense that there is not always a connection to the food,” Swedenborg said.

As might be expected, working on a farm for the first time leads to experiences Gustavus students do not customarily encounter in their daily classes. “I cleaned out a hog barn,” Wiechmann said. “It was wild. When the first layer was taken off it was one of the most ferocious smells I’ve ever experienced.”

For Glenn, a vivid memory of her month was a mistake she made that required over an hour chasing unruly chickens around the farm yard to correct. “I think one memorable experience was when we were first given free reign to deal with the chickens, and I decided to let the little ones out. They were temporarily in a coop until we could build a fenced pasture for them. As soon as I let them out, I understood why they had been in the coop to begin with,” Glenn said. “The chickens bee-lined for the forest, and we had to spend the morning regrouping them. I’m glad that was a one-time mistake.”

Mistakes were to be expected, but the experience of working outside her element was satisfying for Wiechmann. “You kind of feel like you’re in a different world,” Wiechmann said. “The first day I worked we got up at 6:00 a.m. … I put on my Carhart overalls and Carhart jacket and I just looked in the mirror and didn’t even recognize myself. It was surreal feeding these big animals so early in the morning that it was still pitch black outside. There was kind of a rhythm to it all because they were all waiting for the farmers to feed them, and the cows were waiting outside the parlor ready to be milked. … You could feel the connection between the farmers and their animals. I remember finishing that morning … and going inside to get warm again. We made coffee as the sun was starting to come up outside.  It all felt very rewarding. The work is substantial and real, and that’s meaningful to me,” Wiechmann said.
“I felt so healthy working there,” Swedenborg said, “physically and mentally. I ate wonderful food. It was beautiful—the mountains were beautiful, the farm was beautiful and the work we were doing was beautiful.

The Student Farm
Wiechmann and Swedenborg’s farming days are not in the past now that the spring semester has begun. On the contrary, their days working in the field have only just begun, since the pair is in the midst of starting an organic farm on the Gustavus campus. Both returned from spring semesters spent abroad with a resolve to start a student farm in their remaining time as students. “[We] came back from being abroad and looked at each other on the first day of class and said, ‘We need a farm here,’” Wiechmann said. They decided to pursue the project in their Environmental Studies Senior Seminar, taught by Dontje, “knowing it was going to be more than a school project,” Wiechmann said.

Working with faculty and administration, the students soon found themselves with a plot of land granted to them by the college. Both were surprised by how efficiently the project came together. “We thought it would take longer than this year,” Swedenborg said. “We identified that we needed a buyer, land and money. For the first two, we received a lot of support from the administration. We didn’t expect it to be that easy. They essentially said yes.”

Dontje is thrilled with the progress his students have made in such a short amount of time. “It’s exciting to see it happen,” he said. This is not the first attempt by students to start a project like this, but it is the first time students have maintained enough momentum to make significant progress. “I’ve seen a fairly elaborate proposal for a student-farm and garden from the late ‘90s,” Dontje said, but that was shortly before the tornado hit in 1998. “By the time the dust settled, the students who were involved in it were gone.”

Swedenborg and Wiechmann are committed to making this a project that will outlive their time at Gustavus, especially considering the urgency they feel for the campus to act in environmentally sustainable ways. Dontje also sees this project as a valuable contribution to the Johnson Center’s mission.

“If you look at food production on a global scale, you see a food system that takes something along the lines of 10 calories or more to produce one calorie of food–and a lot of that is fossil fuels, which [are] becoming more scarce [and] has problematic environmental impacts,” Dontje said. “It raises the question: are we creating a food system that can’t be sustained? A significant part of that [energy expended] is in shipment.”

Dontje, Swedenborg and Wiechmann agree that students should think more critically about the food they eat. By May, the students expect to employ the help of volunteers to plant a garden. “We want to raise awareness about food on campus,” Wiechmann said. “I think by dealing with food and agriculture issues, you confront many giant social and environmental issues like accessibility to food, global warming, loss of biodiversity, animal abuse issues and so many more.”

There are few opportunities to study sustainable agriculture in classes at Gustavus and Swedenborg and Wiechmann hope to inform the Gustavus community while raising awareness about a number of issues through the farm. “Right now we are living in a society that is consuming and consuming without any pause to think about what and who is affected by the things we use,” Wiechmann said. “As we start to look at the size of our ecological footprints and how we can make a change, I believe that through holistic change and bringing things [to a] more local [level], especially our food, we can really decrease our ecological footprints as individuals and as communities.”

Director of Dining Services Steve Kjellgren welcomes the opportunity to purchase and serve food in the Market Place that is produced on campus. “At this time, Minnesota-grown seasonal items are purchased–including crop vegetables–carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, apples, beans, etc. Our milk and most dairy products are products of Minnesota as are our chicken, eggs, beef, pork and french fries,” Kjellgren said.

“We will purchase most, if not all, of their produce and will adjust menus and recipes as their various vegetables are harvested. We are so pleased by the possibility of being able to feature food items on campus that are grown ‘By Gusties, For Gusties,’” Kjellgren said.

Wiechmann and Swedenborg are excited to involve the entire campus in their efforts and to offer the students the opportunity to enjoy everything a student farm and garden could offer. “I think it’s important that people see things growing and know what a tomato plant looks like and when it is harvested,” Wiechmann said. “I want to give people here the pleasure of eating a tomato that came from the garden. We want people to come out and eat the food, pick it if they want. I want people to be able to enjoy their food and know where it comes from.”

If anyone is interested in participating in this project, Wiechmann and Swedenborg invite all who are interested to join their newly-founded organization, Big Hill Student Farm. “Come visit us on the farm,” Wiechmann said.

Editor’s Note: Eliza Swedenborg is the Commentary Editor and Danielle Harms is the Features Editor of THE GUSTAVIAN WEEKLY.
If you’re interested in more information about volunteering or the organization Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, visit and

7 thoughts on “New Kids on the Farm. New Farm on the Block.

  1. the more we purchase our meat from local farmers, the stronger the local economies are and the better off we are in health for eating meat that was raised in the same climate we live in. we have to make this change, the food delivery system in america benefits the few and delivers substandard products to the american public, in general.

  2. Farm life is the greatest and yet it is the hardest of all professions. It is certainly rewarding. Unfortunately these little farms are all too few in number.

    Way too many, and that is most folks have no clue about farms or what happens there or where their food comes from. And a lot of these same folks would limit the way most farmers farm. When they start talking about imposing a tax on cows for the gas they produce because it is causing global warming, well, I think those folks are the ones responsible for global warming. They producing way too much hot air.

    People have no clue where milk or meat comes from and then want to tell someone they cannot raise it.

    I think God for all the farmers and the things they produce and I thank Him for those who are small and doing it right. We all are going to be looking to those who know how, like you, to do it ourselves one day.

    Good on ya, keep up the good work.


  3. Seems obvious, but a lot of people seem to think it�s about software, or a business model, or user-generated content. Any version of those three items can and will work, but if you don�t have wildly passionate journalists, developers, salespeople, all three, or one person who does all three jobs, you�re not going to get very far.

  4. The city folks moving to the country trend is still in full force. Just maybe we can change the way people view farmers and the country way of life even though rural America makes up such a small percentage of the population.

    God Bless

  5. The “family farm” is almost of thing of the past here in Kansas. There are alot that are struggling to stay alive long enough to get in “one more year”, but sadely more will fail. Large corporation farming has almost ruined the family farm.

    Thanks for the article.

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