A group of incoming School of Natural Resources and Environment students had barely begun working when the first lesson, albeit an informal one, happened.
"This is in the beet family. Do you have beets in China," one student named Laura asked a classmate who had inquired about the shiny, bright green, red and pink leaves of Swiss chard the students were harvesting.
On this day at the University of Michigan farm, the group from SNRE and another from the Law School were on hand to pick produce that was to be shared with the local Food Gatherers. At the end of the day, the farm turned over more than 400 pounds of the chard, kale, eggplant, peppers, squash and other vegetables to the organization that provides food for area families with need.
Over the last year and a half, classes, groups and individuals have come to the 2-acre plot at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens to work, even before a single seed or plant was placed in the ground.
Volunteers helped design the space, plow the overgrowth of weeds, construct some raised beds, and build up the soil so things could grow. They established plants over the winter in a greenhouse, and once vegetables and herbs were planted kept the organic garden weeded and, as naturally as possible, pest free. They also helped care for the resident bees in an apiary built by one of the early volunteer teams.
Bekah Kreckman, Literature, Science and the Arts program in the environment undergraduate, worked in the greenhouse over the winter, digging out old dirt and replacing it with healthy soil, then helping to nurture the plants that would be transplanted in spring.
"I have a really passionate interest in food systems, and I think that starts with the growing of food. I like that I can see how the food is grown, how it starts and how it ends up in our hands," said Kreckman, who tasted her first radish at the campus farm.
Parker Anderson, SNRE graduate student earning a dual master's degree in landscape architecture and sustainable systems, helps recruit and supervise volunteers.
"That's been my goal. To connect people with this space and, hopefully, the campus farm will become institutionalized at the University of Michigan," Anderson said.
The farm in this space is new, started before the planting season of 2012 as an outgrowth of an earlier initiative by students, faculty and staff who were interested in sustainable food systems.
"Students have been the major drivers behind what we're doing," said Robert Grese, director of the gardens and the Nichols Arboretum, and Theodore Roosevelt Professor of Ecosystem Management. "Last summer there was a group that started a small food plot that was the initial part of the farm. Since then, we've hired two summer interns, and with student volunteers, they've really helped to make this farm functional."
Anderson is one of the interns and the other is Meaghan Guckian, SNRE behavior, education and communication master's student.
"I have a lot of hopes and aspirations for this space. Long term I want it to be a resource and an area for students to restore and get their hands dirty, but also to use it educationally," Guckian said.
Grese said Planet Blue, U-M's sustainability program, and the Third Century Initiative, a university effort to encourage engaged learning experiences, provided funding to allow the interns to be hired, to support the programming, and to encourage the development of learning experiences.
"Food is universal," Guckian said. "You have to eat to sustain yourself. And pretty much all conversations take place over a kitchen table. So this farm is serving as that table."
- Michigan's World Class: http://worldclass.umich.edu