Student Farmers share their Summer Experience

Student farmers Axel Gonzalez (’16) and Grace Barter (’16) share their experience of farm life at Ursinus College.

Ursinus College’s 2.5 acre Organic Farm is a few weeks away from finishing it’s 11th growing season. Designed as an experiential learning program, student Directors are immersed in farm life for an entire calendar year as they plant, plant, harvest, and distribute the seasonal bounty. Work begins at the computer in February ordering seeds and mapping the crop plan. Planting and patience are the hallmarks of March and April, which pay off with the years first harvests of greens in early May. The bounty and color of summer quickly follow with squash, tomatoes, peppers, beans and more, all with vibrant colors and sweet pure taste that grace market and kitchen tables. Planting for fall crops begins in August, which we will see and taste their fruits by October, after which the growing season ends for us at the UC Organic Farm.

There is still plenty to celebrate and look forward to with fall crops, but with the semester beginning and the end of the growing season in site, Axel and Grace reflect on their summer as Ursinus’ 2014 Farmers.

Why did you want to work on the farm?

Grace: I wanted to work on the farm because I wanted to get involved with something outside of academics and sports at Ursinus. I have always been interested in food, sustainability, and healthy living so the Green Fellows program caught my attention. I had never had much farming or growing experience but knew I was interested so I decided to try something new and try out the position.

Axel: I wanted to work on the farm for a number of reasons. The most important of these reasons is perhaps the educational opportunity the farm would provide me with. I have developed an interest in food production in high school after learning about how harmful and unjust the food system in this country – and in many places around the world – is. I see it to be a duty of mine to do everything that I can to learn as much as I can about growing and producing food in order that I may help to build a food system that is sustainable, healthy, and equitable.

 What were your expectations back in February and how did they culminate or change throughout the summer?

Grace: In February I was definitely excited but also overwhelmed. I was excited to be able to choose the crops that we would be growing through the season but also overwhelmed by all of these choices and decisions. I was also overwhelmed with the many responsibilities that Axel and I had to fulfill with my limited knowledge on what would work best. We created a season long growing and harvesting plan that I expected we would follow and that quickly changed just because of timing, weather, and how much effort is required in various steps. While some of the outcomes may have changed as the season went along I am very happy with how things turned out and would say it was a successful season! There are so many things that I have learned and now would have done differently but that’s all part of the learning experience.

Axel: The farm has been one of those things that I thought about incessantly before starting, replaying over and over what it would look like. And, of course, like travelling to a new place, it was nothing like I expected. I had no idea how much weeding I’d be doing, how many of the plants would look like as they matured, and what diseases and pests we’d have to deal with. I thought I’d have to read a library of books in order to actually make food come out of the ground. But, of course, I realized that plants do most of the work (except for the hardest part: weeding).

Your top 3  favorite moments/activities on the farm – what made them so special?

Grace: It’s hard to limit my favorite things about the farm to three. However, I would say finalizing our seed order and planting in the greenhouse very early on was exciting because we had so much freedom to pick what we wanted to grow. I also loved watching the seedlings grow in the greenhouse when it was still so cold outside, it was a nice way to welcome the season. Secondly, I loved when we would find and try the first of our vegetables. It seemed like they magically appeared overnight and were ready to be eaten.  It was just so exciting to see what all of our hard work and nature produce when combined together. Finally, harvesting honey from the beehives we have at the farm was one of the coolest experiences I have ever had, not just this summer. It was amazing to see something so delicious and so pure right at (on) our fingertips. It was fun to eat and share with others but also reminded us of how important the bees are to farming and to our lives.

Axel:  I think my favorite moment on the farm was the day the chickens came to live outside. Watching  them grow and change was an incredible experience – especially when they learned how to walk down the ramp in their coop. Also, saving seeds from the sugar snap peas and re-planting them in the ground gave me the incredible sensation of experiencing the permanence of seed and the permanence of life. It is beautiful and humbling to see this and take part in it. Lastly, harvesting honey from the bees was like seeing gold dripping down into a bowl – except better because you can’t eat gold. It’s no wonder we refer to our most beloved ones as “honey.”

Any particularly interesting stories or conversations from the markets?

Grace: What I enjoyed most from the farmer’s markets were getting to know some of the other vendors. There is such a wide variety of personalities and passions that I was able to experience—from other fellow vegetables, to cookies, and to wine. Everyone was always eager to share their goods and support one another. I also met several Ursinus alumni that returned to the area to live and raise families.  It was great to hear their stories of their experiences at the college and be genuinely happy to see a new program, the farm, expanding and flowing back to the community.

Axel: The best conversations I’ve had at the market was people sharing their experience of growing food with us. It was wonderful to share information and learn from others about the practice of growing food that is so central to our lives, so central to being human.

What are the top three things you learned?

Grace: This is even harder to limit all that I’ve learned to three things. I have a much better general understanding of what types of crops grow best under specific conditions, which is a great life skill to have, especially if you wish to grow your own food. I have learned how much time and effort it takes to plan, grow, and maintain something like we did. Before I started I knew it would be hard work but I realize now that there is always something that can be done and it all takes time and physical or mental labor. Finally, I learned that a lot of what we do, and other farmers, is determined and controlled by nature. We could do all the planning we wanted but when it came time to plant and then to harvest, it all depended on the natural elements. This was a great lesson because it taught me that not everything can be planned for and that there is so much more to the world than just humans.

Axel: One: Weeding builds character – patience and persistence. Two: Food is simple to grow – all you need are seeds and dirt. Three: Store-bought tomatoes cannot compare with heirlooms.

Has this experience changed the way you look at food or farmers? 

Grace: I have always had an appreciation for food because I love it so much. However, working on the farm has greatly expanded this appreciation. Now, whenever I eat something I really try to think about all the steps it took for that food to get to my plate. I also try to eat what is in season and what is naturally meant to be eaten at that time. The same goes for the way I think about the people that grow our food—there is so much time, effort, and love that goes into the process and I hope to share that knowledge with others because it is often something that is forgotten or under-appreciated. The experiences have also opened my eyes to those farmers that are not nearly as fortunate as I was this summer and do what they do as a way to survive and are not being fairly compensated for their labor.  I hope I can somehow help with this social problem and that others will realize this and help to support them too.

Axel: Yes; this is a given. For one, I appreciate the work that farmers do much more now. Now, when I think about the industrial food system – and the exploitative labor that comes with it – I better understand how back-breaking harvesting strawberries or other produce for hours can be. Food is a gift and we are all entitled to share in this gift.