The Student Farm at Penn State is a club that would typically give students hands-on agricultural experience, but due to the coronavirus, this has been scaled back.
The student farm is mainly made up of three different entities: the main farm, the hydroponic greenhouse and the rooftop garden — all of which the cub operates.
The club has still been active, despite not being able to operate in the same capacity as it would in a normal year.
Jade Menow, the executive director of the student farm, said the club is still trying to figure out how to retain some semblance of normalcy, which it has done in part by continuing to hold events and meetings in a virtual format.
Menow (senior-agribusiness management) said the club has heard from guest speakers, including alumni. The club has even held “cooking collaborations” over Zoom.
Events the club has held have also included a virtual and in-person tour of the student farm, which Programming Director Margaret Mitchell said has been “really, really cool.”
“People were so excited to finally have the opportunity to get outside, just interacting with people, even if it was with masks and it's six feet,” Mitchell (junior- immunology and infectious disease) said.
Mitchell’s role is to focus on club member retention and organize meetings.
“I think [member retention has] definitely decreased, which I was expecting,” she said. “It's tough, especially for freshmen. If I was a freshman, I don't think I would want to get involved in anything right now.”
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Mitchell said there were about 20 people who regularly attended the meetings last year, and there are about 12 to 15 regular attendees this year.
“They're a really nice group of people, I'm just doing what I can to make [virtual meetings] a fun time,” Mitchell said. “It was definitely scary. My main goal was that I didn't want people to feel like they were just going to come to another lecture this semester, and I think it's been going well.”
Menow said the farm currently has nine interns working shifts on the farm throughout the week. As a former intern herself, she’s responsible for training the new interns and making sure everything is going according to plan.
“It took awhile for us to get hiring approval because Penn State wasn't hiring new people during the pandemic,” Menow said. “Eventually, we pushed hard enough and proved that we were an essential business.”
When conducting in-person business on the farm, the group makes sure to follow the basic coronavirus guidelines, including social distancing and wearing masks. The farm also submitted a coronavirus protocol detailing further safety regulations.
“[The protocol] included washing your hands when you get to the farm,” Menow said. “If you have symptoms, don't come to the farm, just like the basic things like that.”
The protocol also extends to the hydroponic farm and the rooftop garden as well.
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Cole Connolly, the hydroponics production manager, is in charge of the greenhouse on campus. Connolly (junior-plant science) originally had a grant that allowed him to work on campus and bypass some of the restrictions to keep the greenhouse operational, but since Penn State Student Affairs shut down all clubs, he has not been back.
“We were excited to start the semester… knowing that we would have limited access to stuff that we were able to do, but it's kind of been disappointing in the last month or so,” Connolly said.
Menow said the farm is meant to be a hands-on experience, but because of the pandemic, traditional club activities have been limited or shut down completely.
“Most of the time, classes come out to the farm during their class period and would be able to have a hands-on learning experience,” Menow said. “But right now we have shut all that down because we want everyone to be safe, and it's difficult to manage that many people, even though it's an outdoor space, we haven't been allowed to do things like that.”
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Other events that were regularly in the club’s schedule that have also been canceled include volunteer days, during which club and community members have a chance to learn on the farm, too.
Menow said dealing with red-tape from the Penn State administrators has been a difficult and lengthy process, and has been the only bump in the road in what she considers an otherwise smooth transition to the club’s new operating status.
“We have heard ‘no’ so many times [from Penn State], but that doesn't stop us,” Menow said. “We send so many emails, basically begging for approval.
“It took a lot to get interns hired. It took a lot to get our in-person meeting. And we keep getting shut down and panics, but every time that happens we resubmit our COVID protocol and have a few weeks of production.”
Penn State has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Despite these alleged administrative issues, the club’s executive board feels things are going well given the circumstances.
“I finally think we've all really done a great job of working together and just making the best of this whole situation,” Mitchell said. “It's gone well.”