Student Organic Farm provides hands-on experience

When a group of students wanted to learn about organic farming and try it in the field, they started a student organization focused on the idea.

November 7, 2013

Students from the Student Organic Farm at MSU sell produce on Thursdays at the Auditorium

When a group of students wanted to learn about organic farming and try it in the field, they started a student organization focused on the  idea. At the same time, John Biernbaum, professor in the Department of Horticulture, was researching possibilities for four-season organic farming in Michigan.

The marriage of these ideas resulted in the Student Organic Farm (SOF) at Michigan State University (MSU).

“One of the very important roles of the SOF is providing a safe and nurturing place where students can develop a strong sense of community,” Biernbaum said. He serves as faculty coordinator with the Department of Horticulture and other administrative units on campus for the SOF. “The farm is a place where everyone is welcome, diverse voices can be heard, and students realize that what they do really makes a difference.” 

With Biernbaum’s guidance, the original core group of students built three passive solar greenhouses at the farm and, in the spring of 2003, began the first season of production. The students were interested in following the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, in which produce is presold to CSA members for a growing season. 

From the beginning, the aim of the farm was to provide a place where students could come and volunteer, work, visit and provide input on the development of the land and farm.

Over the past 11 years, the farm has developed into a place where a variety of groups are involved in growing food and creating learning opportunities through farming. 

“Because there is so much important work to do each day when you make a commitment to help provide food for your community, including caring for livestock, the students learn to depend on one another so the work is shared and balanced,” Biernbaum said. “All of these and other activities at the farm lead to a very strong sense of community among current students and the students who have been a part of the farm since the inception but have now grown into other places and careers.”

In the early years, Biernbaum was involved with the students and staff members in the day-to-day development and operation of the farm, particularly with the passive solar greenhouse construction and management and field plots, including the edible forest garden.  

He then moved on to be more involved with developing several of the courses that were part of the Organic Farming Certificate Program (OFCP) and now are part of the undergraduate curriculum. 

For the past few years, Biernbaum has been working with the Office of Campus Sustainability and Residential and Hospitality Services to develop food scrap wormcomposting at the SOF. This work includes working with Laurie Thorp, who also has guided the SOF development from the start and is director of the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment (RISE) Program, to develop the Bailey GREENhouse and Urban Farm Project.

Though the SOF has grown by leaps and bounds, students still appreciate the basics.

“Working at the SOF has enabled me to broaden my understanding of organic production,” said horticulture junior Madeline Valentine from Grand Rapids, Mich. “I no longer focus on the ‘don’ts’ such as limiting pesticide and herbicide use but focus more on the ‘dos’ such as the importance of soil health and plant diversity, crop rotation and cover cropping.”


Valentine spent the summer working at the SOF. The most rewarding part of working at the farm was interacting with the CSA members, she said.

“The relationship that develops between farmer and consumer is so important and is unfortunately scarce in many food systems,” she explained.

Valentine said there is rarely a typical day at the farm, but most days consist of some combination of ripping, prepping, seeding beds, harvesting, weeding, farm maintenance and animal care.

“Mornings are my favorite part of the day because the farm is so beautiful—bright sun, fresh dew,” Valentine said. “Feeding the animals in that environment gives me this overwhelming feeling that we're doing something good for the earth. I can't think of any other way I would have rather spent my summer than working there.”

There are two full-time long-term staff positions and five other staff positions that are often filled on a shorter term basis by graduates of the OFTP.  There are also about four full-time student positions during the summer and slightly fewer during the academic year. Biernbaum said six to eight students work part-time. Many volunteers who start by wanting to learn about the farm become employees.

“One of my favorite parts of working at the SOF is being a part of a passionate community,” Biernbaum said. “I love having the chance to try out and develop new ideas to improve the sustainability of how we live, and being able to see many new students come to the farm, learn new ideas and then go out to be successful in their own way by applying those ideas.”

The opportunity to be involved on a day-to-day basis with staff members and other students who are dedicated to learning about year-round intensive organic vegetable farming is one of the more important reasons that students should visit and get involved in the SOF, Biernbaum said.

When asked what advice she would give to incoming horticulture students, Valentine said, “Go out and get your hands dirty. Employers want people with experience, and the SOF is a great way to get started. Get as much hands-on experience as possible. After all, that is what it is all about.”

To learn more about the MSU SOF, visit http://www.msuorganicfarm.com/.

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