Campus farms forced to adapt as winter closes in
Walking past Bailey Greenhouse and Urban Farm on a brisk November day, as plants all around campus seem to be turning brown and dying, you might not expect much activity.
But on the farm, student workers were still tending to the crops. Inside the greenhouse, horticulture junior Rachel Burdt and sophomore Corrine Johnston were prepping the plants for winter, aided by a couple friends and one friendly pup.
The laid-back atmosphere as the crew cared for the plants is a preview of what the winter months mean for workers at Bailey — drastically less work. As the temperature dips, the greenhouse requires less managing, meaning workers like Burdt may see their hours halved.
"I work eight hours a week, but now that its getting into the colder months, we'll probably cut back hours because there's not much to do anyways," Burdt said.
The greenhouse isn't too much of a burden for employees in the first place. Burdt said workers can choose their own schedules, and she has enough time for a second job. The relatively light workload means MSU students can focus on learning as much about horticulture as possible.
Although many of the paid workers at the greenhouse are a part of the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment, or RISE program, Johnston said participating in RISE is not a requirement for helping out around the greenhouse.
"People from RISE or just anyone can come and volunteer and kind of learn what we do and help us with our task," Johnston said.
Bailey Greenhouse sits right outside Bailey Hall in Brody Neighborhood, blocking a former loading dock that has since been used to grow grapes. Hardly larger than the neighboring basketball courts, the small plot of land isn't solely a learning opportunity; it also is a self-sustained farm that sells crops to various clients.
"The biggest part is the business side," Burdt said. "The education part is big for RISE students, but what keeps us sustained is selling our food. We sell to the cafs on campus, we sell to the food truck, we sell to Red Haven, and it's not a huge quantity, but it's what keeps us afloat."
Both Bailey and the MSU Student Organic Farm use passive greenhouses, meaning all of the energy is provided by the sun and ventilation is natural. This means energy usage doesn't skyrocket during the winter like a heated greenhouse, but it also means a more unpredictable setting in which to grow. Student Organic Farm Greenhouse Manager Kate Heflick said the cold weather requires workers to focus on proper growing techniques so the crops aren't ruined.
"We don't want to be watering and leaving droplets on the leaves of any of our crops," Heflick said. "That would freeze and then damage that crop. We have to make sure we're also watering on days that are sunny, and we do it early so that the plants have time to dry off before the temperature drops down, and they risk getting frost damage."
Because there's only about a nine-hour window for sunlight on any given winter day, heating a passive greenhouse and providing light for the crops can be a challenge. While summer's plentiful sunlight means a regular harvest schedule can be established, a long stretch of gray winter days might mean crops go a week or more without being harvested.
This poses a problem, since the Student Organic Farm, like Bailey, sustains itself by selling its crops on and off campus. In addition to selling to campus dining halls and regional restaurants, the farm also sells CSA, or community-supported agriculture, farm shares. Shareholders receive weekly produce boxes that vary with the seasons; a July box might have cucumbers and sweet corn inside, while November shares could include beets and garlic.
"It gives the farmer some money up front to pay for all the things they need to actually grow the food, and then it gets doled out slowly through the season," Heflick said.
Heflick said even with the added maintenance that winter farming requires, the colder weather doesn't necessarily have an effect on campus farms' output. Although most of the crops are grown during the summer, there are a few, like bok choy, that can be grown in cold weather. Other crops that are held in reserve after summer harvesting can still be sold during the winter, allowing the CSA program to run year-round.
"While we're not harvesting as much during the winter, we're still giving out about the same of food," Heflick said. "We supplement that growing with all of our storage crops, so things that we've grown throughout the summer, but we actually don't give out until the winter."