Harvest bountiful at UI student farm

URBANA — Three-and-a-half years after it was first established on campus, the University of Illinois Sustainable Student Farm is having its best year ever.

Despite the drought.

On a recent morning, workers and volunteers harvested salad greens, heirloom tomatoes, peppers and plenty of that ubiquitous summer vegetable, the zucchini.

The produce is packed and transported to the Quad in a "folding farm," a contraption designed by UI architecture students that is hooked to a bicycle and doubles as a table for selling the produce.

Because vegetable varieties are chosen for taste, not their capacity for being stored and shipped over long distances, the locally grown veggies are "packed with flavor," said Bruce Branham, professor in the Department of Crop Sciences who helped kick-start the project.

"We choose varieties that are high in eating quality," said Zack Grant, who graduated with a master's degree in horticulture from the UI and serves as the farm's manager. He also has the privilege of biking the folding farm to campus on Thursdays for the farmstand.

Since its beginning, the farm has grown thanks to several partnerships with departments in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and other units on campus, including architecture, dining services, not to mention some community groups such as the Master Gardeners.

Students have helped keep it running by providing some funding raised through the student sustainability fee and by helping plant, pull weeds and harvest for a total of about 1,000 volunteer hours annually.

"This year has probably been our best year because we've expanded into more areas, and we also have a really versatile irrigation system," Grant said.

When the farm was initially established, organizers had land, and that was pretty much it: about 2 acres of ground.

Since then, they've installed an irrigation system, added storage and office space, and high tunnels or hoop houses, which are like greenhouses that help extend the growing season. The farm is now up to about 6 acres. Although for the most part they grow and sell vegetables like radishes, beets and squash, they're also looking into some small berry production.

Branham said much of the first three years have been focused on building the farm's infrastructure and getting the production system down.

The student farm is not some "flash-in-the-pan" project, Branham said.

"We've had some hardships and limited resources," Grant said.

But they have not experienced any major crop failures.

Unlike a large vegetable farm in California or Florida where producers grow one or two vegetables, "we mix things up. We're constantly move things around and growing a large diversity of things," Grant said.

"The type of farm we're modeling here is a highly diversified small to medium farm," Grant said.

Typically, diverse vegetable farms start out selling directly to consumers at farmers' markets or through a community-supported agriculture program, then they build markets and production from there. This farm started with a partnership with UI dining services to supply campus dining halls with tomatoes, peppers and salad greens as a way to boost the amount of locally grown food being served there. One day, organizers may form a community-supported agriculture group, Grant said.

"The goal, and this has taken longer than we thought, is to make the farm produce enough that the farm pays for itself, and hopefully generate a profit," Branham said.

They've welcomed tours and held outreach events at the farm, but Branham said he envisions the farm becoming more involved with the university's academic mission. That means adding teaching and research activities at the farm.

"As it matures, we want to ... offer a class next summer in hands-on vegetable production, conduct some research trials (in vegetable production) and work more with faculty," Bran-ham said.

For now, you can sample the fruits of the farm by stopping by the farmstand on the Quad where they sell bok choy, herbs, cauliflower and more. It's located just south of the Illini Union on Thursdays through November from around 11 a.m. until the produce is sold out or until about 5 p.m.

This story appeared in print on July 22.

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