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Organic farm changes improve training

April 12, 2010

Lansing resident Bobbi Minor collects eggs in the hen house of the Student Organic Farm on Monday at the Horticulture Teaching and Research Center, 3291 College Road. Eggs are gathered twice a day, washed and sold for $5 per dozen at the farm stand. Minor is one of 15 students enrolled in the Organic Farmer Training Program, a nine-month certification program that attracts students from all over Michigan and surrounding states.

Photo by Kat Petersen | The State News

It’s a part of campus that most students never will visit, but for Walker Hancock, the Student Organic Farm is her version of the MSU experience — an experience that will see a few positive changes this year.

Hancock is one of many students, volunteers and community members involved in the Student Organic Farm who soon will be learning and working with a new mobile greenhouse as well as experiencing changes in the Organic Farmer Training Program.

The Student Organic Farm is a student-initiated project that began as a small organic garden in 1999, said Denae Friedheim, assistant instructor and recruitment coordinator for the Organic Farmer Training Program.

Friedheim said the 10-acre farm has come a long way since then. It’s now equipped with six solar greenhouses, or hoop houses, and partnering with MSU Culinary Services to provide organic products to the Yakeley cafeteria.

“New this year, we’re putting up a mobile greenhouse that’s on tracks and can be moved,” Friedheim said. “(With the new greenhouse) you’re able to start your cool season crops, take them through the season in that greenhouse (and) move the greenhouse, exposing those plants to the elements and cover another crop. We can cover four times the ground with just one structure and stretch your season, which is really important for Michigan farmers.”

Friedheim said other changes on the farm include adjusting the Organic Farmer Training Program from a yearlong, four-credit program to a nine month long, noncredit program.

The Organic Farmer Training Program is a hands-on certificate program emphasizing agricultural skill sets and student management of the Student Organic Farm.

“Now classes and workshops and lectures happen on the farm, which enables us to make it a very hands-on learning environment,” Friedheim said. “We can lecture about cover crops and immediately after go out and take a look at those crops growing on the farm.”

Hancock, a student in the Organic Farmer Training Program, grew up on a thoroughbred horse farm in Paris, Ky., and has traveled across the country postgraduation to different farms, volunteering and working as far away as San Francisco. Aiming to achieve future plans, Hancock landed at MSU.

“I’m really, really happy and enthralled with this program,” she said. “Every second that passes here I’m learning something new. It’s a truly intensive program. We’re enveloped by farming.”

John Biernbaum, a professor of horticulture and one of the founders of the Student Organic Farm, said one of the aims of the farm is to show Michiganians fresh food isn’t just a product of the summertime.

“We use the unheated hoop houses to produce fresh food using simple technologies,” Biernbaum said.“We look at how all of us are connected to food. We’re looking to improve those connections, helping people get access to good food and helping people who want to be new farmers.”

Biernbaum said farm workers represent a diverse group — from those who want to have small farms in the future to those studying culinary arts.

“Some (workers) are MSU students, some are participants in the program,” he said. “Both groups are students and people who are interested in producing food and growing, but also in better understanding food and where it comes from.”

Farm workers also are looking forward to having piglets in May and expanding their work with organically raised livestock in the future, Friedheim said.

Hancock said she hopes the experience at the farm will solidify her experience enough to start her own organic farm on a portion of her father’s land in the future.

“For the most part, (organic farming) is a cleaner and more respectful way to treat the earth,” she said. “As a person and a farmer I’m growing exponentially every day that I’m here. I really enjoy it.”

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