Even with plunging temperatures and piling snow, the Student Farm at Penn State continues to grow crops, looking to educate on sustainability and strengthen community.
“We do a lot in the winter,” Leslie Pillen, associate director, said. “We’re definitely not sitting around bored.”
Pillen said the lettuce, leafy greens, herbs and tomatoes they grow in the winter go predominantly to Redifer dining commons, but the farm also supplies multiple places on campus, like the Nittany Lion Inn, the Bryce Jordan Center, Cafe Laura and Sbarro in the HUB-Robeson Center.
With nature working against them, the farm maintains a hydroponics system, which uses nutrients and a water-based solution to grow crops in the winter. It also has a high tunnel, or unheated greenhouse.
“It provides enough protection from the wind and the cold that you can continue to grow some cold, hearty crops,” Pillen said. “We should be able to harvest from that a couple times in the winter.”
Over the winter, the Student Farm hires and trains interns to maintain the farm’s day-to-day operations. They are set to end training and begin their internships by the end of the semester in May.
“There’s a lot of training that goes into our students who then run the farm,” Pillen said. “Through the summer, they’ll be in charge of not only growing and selling the crops but also leading tours and work days and public events.”
Penn State’s Student Farm Club is the major student leadership for the farm’s events and planning.
Sienna McNett, the president of the Student Farm Club, has been involved with the farm since her freshman year.
“Having experienced food insecurity myself, our initiatives to give locals access to fresh produce through our food bank partnerships means a lot to me,” McNett (senior-biology) said.
The Student Farm spends a lot of the winter months planning year-round initiatives. For instance, the farm sends volunteers to harvest surplus produce and distribute it to food pantries around Centre County.
According to Haley Stauffer, farming is analogous for life — healing, even.
“It’s a way for low-income community members to have greater access to fresh produce, which is something pantries often have a tough time getting enough of,” Pillen said.
As Pillen sees it, ordering seeds, talking to the food pantries and figuring out logistics in the winter is vital to ensuring the initiative’s success whenever the heat decides to come back.
“It’s a really cool project, and we’re really proud of it,” Pillen said. “Last year was its first year, and we were able to pick the surplus produce and distribute over 20,000 pounds to food pantries.”
One of the Student Farm Club’s project teams also centers on youth education, by planning out four days of curriculum for a regional sustainable agriculture conference in Pennsylvania every year.
“The people who attend the conference are able to bring their kids with them, and student farm club members in the youth education team plan out a curriculum for the children during the conference in early February,” Pillen said.
Renting space in greenhouses on campus, the club also starts seedlings for its annual plant sale in the spring.
“Our club has work days where we can get our hands dirty… going out to the farm and helping interns harvest and upkeep the site,” McNett said.
And after graduation, McNett plans to attend medical school.
“The Student Farm has fostered my understanding of not only the important role food plays in human health but also the therapeutic benefits of gardening and green space,” she said.
Mary Lemmon became involved with the Student Farm when she was a sophomore at Penn State and started as the farm’s AmeriCorps member four years later in 2018.
She works with the Student Farm Club on community engagement efforts.
“Doing things that benefit others always makes you feel good,” Lemmon said. “It also is very humbling to work with people who are so much smarter and hard-working than I am.”
Lemmon said the Student Farm has increased the amount of food sold to the dining commons on campus and grown its internship program since budding in 2016.
“We have increased the amount of produce donated to food banks to 20,000 pounds and have the possibility of doubling that number this coming year thanks to the Penn State Horticulture farm,” she said.
Lemmon said the Student Farm plans to move to a new site by the MorningStar Solar Home — closer to campus for more class engagement and increase growing area.