Farmers in Training
Each year, several students dig deep to learn the art of organic farming
For those studying at the MSU Student Organic Farm, the coursework is dictated by each growing season, and failing an assignment means less food on the table.
After class, horticulture junior Michael Klacking travels past agricultural research centers and down dirt roads to the 15-acre farm located on the grounds of the Horticulture Teaching and Research Center near the southern edge of campus.
Klacking is a member of the farm crew, a group of graduate and undergraduate students who work on the farm, witnessing how the lessons taught in lectures, discussions and slideshows in the classroom align with and variate from what unfolds in the field throughout the agricultural cycle.
“Class is learning the science behind stuff, the physiology of things,” Klacking said. “Out here that can be important, but things can differ from what you learn in class to what happens in the field. Being out here teaches you in a whole different way.”
For Klacking, who desires to establish a small-scale organic farm after graduation, toiling in the dirt is complementary to his university education. Klacking said the benefit of the farm work extends past learning application and know-how.
“It’s rewarding, and the anticipation after putting in a lot of labor, then we get to see them grow from seedlings into plants — it’s reaping the harvest of your hard work,” Klacking said. “It’s seeing something from the beginning to the end.”
Harvest on campus
Every year from the start of April to the end of October, members of the Student Organic Farm sell produce to students on campus each Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Farm Stand Manager and Assistant Instructor Russell Honderd and his team haul produce from the farm to campus for students to purchase at a farm stand in front of the Auditorium.
According to the farm’s website, some of the produce offered during spring at the Farm Stand are spinach, lettuce, brassica salad mix, chard, kale, collards, radishes, turnips, peas, and strawberries. In addition, they also offer many garden transplants and storage crops like potatoes, carrots, winter squash, onions, garlic, rutabaga, cabbage, and beets.
Because the produce comes from a local farm and doesn’t have to sit on store shelves, it is picked when ripe, giving it a richer, often sweeter, taste than many are accustomed to, Honderd said.
Honderd said last year one student bought hot peppers, cilantro and tomatoes from the Farm Stand and was so surprised by the difference in taste that she was compelled to give back.
“She came back an hour later with salsa and said, ‘This is the best salsa I ever made, and I wanted you to have some,’” Honderd said. “She makes a mean salsa.”
The Gallery at Snyder-Phillips Executive Chef Eric Batten experiments with leafy greens from the Student Organic Farm and incorporates them into various dishes. Batten said the quality of produce from the farm is apparent in its taste.
“It’s good when a tomato tastes like tomato,” he said. “It tastes like what it’s supposed to. It’s being picked when it’s ripe. When you pick something when it’s not ripe, all the sugars don’t have time to develop and it’s not the optimal product.”
Batten’s relationship with the farm began to sprout six or seven years ago when he and a group of students workers began volunteering at the farm once a week. In return, the farm began selling Batten salad greens and other surplus produce.
Batten said helping the process from field to fork is one of his “proudest moments at MSU,” and it is an experience that some of the student workers still thank him for.
Organic Farmer Training Program
The farm hosts a diverse group of learners, from professors and students across various disciplines researching agriculture, to those hoping to establish their own organic farming enterprises.
Howell resident Wendy Pangle, 62, worked in corporate sales for nearly 40 years before deciding to retire. Her retirement plan: buy a plot of land and establish an organic farm where her husband could do woodworking, building their farm structures and selling creations, and where her grandchildren could experience how things grow off the land.
Pangle, an MSU alumna of 1974, is a student once again. After deciding on the retirement plan, she looked for the education needed to create an economically-viable organic farming operation. What she found is the Organic Farm Training Program run by the Student Organic Farm.
“This program is great because it gives you lots of hands-on experience as well quite a bit of university level education on soil biology, composting, ecology, environmental studies,” Pangle said.
Honderd, a graduate of the program, said he chose to participate because it emphasized the business and economics of running a successful organic farm and took a holistic approach to learning the trade.
“I applied to that program because it approached organic agriculture through a lot of different lenses,” Honderd said. “It wasn’t just an academic discipline, skill training or business development, it included all three.”
Each year, about 16 students are selected for the program which rewards a certificate upon completion. It runs nine months, from March to November, and Honderd said the students work and study on the farm for about 40 hours a week, 5 to 6 days a week.
Honderd said the program attracts people from various backgrounds and motivations, because it teaches how to farm organically. For some, organic farming means developing a closer relationship with nature. For some others, it means being able to continue a tradition.
“There are people who are like those hippie permaculturalists who are drawn to organic farming to save the world and be at one with the earth, and there are people who are fourth-generation farmers and they see it as an opportunity to bring some financial security by carving a niche in the market themselves,” Honderd said.
“They’ve seen how their fathers and grandfathers have either struggled or wondered how they’re going to maintain the farm. They’ve seen their family leaving and see it as a means to maintain that.”