Big Hill Farm: Students work to reap what they sow

Big Hill Farm enthusiasts take the compost from the cafeteria to the farm five days a week in hopes of enriching the soil for crops.  <em>Photo submitted.</em>
Big Hill Farm enthusiasts take the compost from the cafeteria to the farm five days a week in hopes of enriching the soil for crops. Photo submitted.
Ever wonder where your food comes from? Saturday, May 9 will see the inauguration of Big Hill Farm. Gustavus students will work on this one and half acre plot of land in an endeavor to organically harvest crops that will be consumed by the Gustavus community. In an age when the idea of living a little more organically and environmentally friendly has become of great concern, Big Hill Farm is a student organization that has pledged to aid Gustavus in this process.

“Our mission is to augment the effort to make Gustavus an environmentally sustainable institution [as well as] to encourage healthy and ethical eating habits,” said Eliza Swedenborg, senior environmental studies major and co-founder of Big Hill Farm.

With the help of various faculty members, as well as a few local famers, Big Hill Farm organization has worked to find organic and cost-effective ways to produce crops that will be later used by Dining Services. Interns will work throughout the summer to cultivate an assortment of vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes, peppers and squash.

“We are working our way from the ground up,” said sophomore English Major Jordan Walker, an intern for the farm. “We’ll be here all summer tending to the plants. … We have to till everything and plant it and make sure we don’t kill it so we have something to show to dining services.”

So far the plans have only included the growing of vegetables, but the organization has also toyed with idea of purchasing chickens.

“We’ve talked about getting animals,” said summer intern Steven Palmer, a junior history major, “but we’re just not sure what to do with them when winter comes.”

This farm will be far different from the average mass production farm.

“We won’t be using any of the standard petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Instead we are relying on natural fertilizers and nutrient amendments, aged manure, compost [and] fish emulsion,” said Swedenborg.

In the spirit of reusing and keeping crops organic, Big Hill Farm enlisted the aid of Dining Services to help with compost. By taking various pieces of organic produce unused by Dining Services, like melon and pineapple rinds, the organization re-uses what might otherwise have been thrown away or put into a landfill. Each day at 4:30 p.m., members of the organization pick up buckets of biodegradable produce to mix into the ground to create fertile and nutrient-filled soil.

“The premise behind composting is that you can grow better things by enriching the soil instead of just trying to enrich the plants,” said Walker.

“We’ll put down a layer of organic matter, like the melon or pineapple rinds, and then a layer of straw or grass clippings and then a layer of dirt.
Eventually it will begin to heat up, and then it starts to decompose, unlocking a lot of nutrients that the plants can then absorb or different insects can eat.”

Big Hill Farm hopes to incorporate itself into the Gustavus community through a variety of different means. In the future, the organization hopes to offer classes that will educate students on the importance of agriculture.

“I think it’s kind of planning for the future, honestly,” said Palmer. “There is so much of a movement towards mass-produced and genetically engineered foods that it is causing environmental issues worldwide. … Here, instead of killing the weeds with chemicals, we will be pulling out the weed with our hands. … It’s the realization that you can take control over your own food.”

“I hope that people start thinking about acting locally,” said Walker. “There are small things [people] can do today … to make Gustavus a more sustainable community. [The farm will] save money, as well as reduce the amount of resources that are used or wasted by the community.”

The farm has received support from Gustavus faculty. Professors such as David Obermiller, assistant professor of history, as well as Jim Dontje, the director of the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation, have lent advice as to how to cultivate a truly organic farm and contributed to the general planning of the farm. With financial aid from both Student Senate and the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation, Big Hill Farm has what it needs to get started and is working out the finer points of a contract with Dining Services.

Big Hill Farm invites all students to help contribute to the farming process, if they are so inclined, whether it is through aiding in composting or some other means.

“If anyone wants to show up, we can put them to use,” said Walker. “We’ll toss ’em a shovel and tell them to start digging, basically.”

The staff at Big Hill Farm fully believe that they are beginning a program that could have a real future at Gustavus, and interns will be blogging throughout the summer to keep both staff and students updated on the progress of the crops.

“I’m excited to be [a part of] something that will hopefully make a lasting impact at Gustavus. I think many schools of a [similar] size have this going already. … It will be useful to get the community to think about food choices because it is a concern that … will become more and more important in our lives,” said Palmer.

If the topics of interest chosen for the Nobel Conference are any measure of importance, the production of food is definitely a key topic, as the conference for 2010 will focus on a food-related theme.

To celebrate the new beginning of the project, Big Hill Farm extends the invitation to all who are interested to attend the inauguration of the farm on Saturday, May 9 at 7:00 p.m. at the farm. The celebration will include free ice cream sundaes (made from local ice cream).

There will also be a mural painting for the shed, which all are welcome to join in on, even if you feel your painting skills aren’t worth beans. The entire evening will also be peppered with various musical songs by the Gustavus Choir.

Big Hill Farm hopes that the entire Gustavus community can feel some amount of ownership for the farm, and thus wish all to turn up. “Come to farming inauguration. It’s going to melt your face off,” said Walker. It is certain not to squash anyone’s expectations for the farm, but to help to become more enthusiastic and educated about the goals that the organization is trying to accomplish.

“We want people to see the farm now and then come back in the fall for the harvest festival and appreciate how much everything has grown,” said Swedenborg.

Big Hill Farm is just one more step in helping to make Gustavus a greener, more organic and sustainable community.

“I am really excited to see sustainability put into practice at Gustavus, because all too often we talk in terms of ideals and aren’t able to act on them in this context,” said Breanna Draxler, a senior environmental studies major and past president of the Gustavus Greens.

Editor’s Note: Eliza Swedenborg is the Commentary Editor for The Weekly.

One thought on “Big Hill Farm: Students work to reap what they sow

  1. I think this is incredible. It is exciting to students and others reverting back to mother nature as it was intended to be.

    I don’t think folks realize it, but this type of farming is all that is going to work before long. It would be amazing if whole communities would work to have community farms/gardens to produce what they need to sustain themselves, instead of everyone running off to the grocery stores.

    I hope they will use little cultivation and allow the soil to do as natural soil does. Only disturb enough to plant the seed. Use lots of compost like straw or newspapers for weed control.

    This exciting to read about. Good on ya all.


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