Farm to Table: MSU Student Organic Farm Struggles With Support

Farm to Table: MSU Student Organic Farm Struggles With Support

By: Katherine Denzin

June 7th, 2022

The MSU Student Organic Farm, located a short drive south of the main campus, is a multifaceted organization. They grow assorted greens, vegetables, mushrooms, fruit and more, available to the community for purchase and consumption. The main benefit of the farm may not be the veggies, though, but the learning experiences and local values that it provides to the MSU community, which are currently under financial threat.

Dr. Laurie Thorp is the program director of the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment at Michigan State University and one of the founders of the student organic farms. “When I first came [to MSU], there were some students that were really interested in learning more about sustainable organic small scale food and farm.” In 2002, the student organic farm won a grant of $95,500 from the Kellogg Foundation to get started and has existed ever since.

The farm has seen some good and bad times. “We’re in one of those phases right now where it’s a little bit rocky,” said Thorp.

According to their 2020 annual report, 23.6% of the farm’s income comes from wholesale, which includes campus dining and Allen Neighborhood Center. During the pandemic, dining halls closed down, limiting one important revenue and community connection for the farm. The farm had to adapt by hosting socially distanced produce pick ups, among other adjustments. Like many organizations, the student organic farms struggled financially from the pandemic, but the financial woes run deeper than the economic backlash from COVID.

“The farm has never had stable funding. It’s self funded, self sustaining and that makes it very challenging,” said Thorp. Their other revenues come from the community supported agriculture program, online purchases and farm stands. According to the student organic farm’s website, the CSA allows customers to “pay for a season’s worth of produce, or a ‘share’ of the farm, in advance and receive diverse, fresh, locally grown vegetables weekly for the season.” This program constituted 68.5% of the farm’s income in 2020 and emphasizes the important role of community support in the farm’s success.

However, there is a distinct lack of University funding for the farm despite the tangible infrastructure it provides the MSU community. “I would literally say our back is up against the wall,” said Thorp, “and the [College of Agriculture and Natural Resources] has said that we are not a priority. We are working in earnest right now with Vice President Vennie Gore, a long time supporter of the farm […] so we’re in the early stages of exploring what that partnership might look like.”

Sarah Geurkink, who manages the farms and its programming, says the importance of funding is “it allows us time to focus on education, rather than maximum production and sales to pay staff and students. It allows students to experiment, make mistakes, [and] learn by trying.” Although there is hope for a partnership between University officials and the farm, the importance of the farm as an experiential learning tool and a source of local food should not be underestimated. 

“I’ve heard so much from my students this semester that they are just fried from looking at a screen for 8 hours a day,” said Dr. Thorp. Working on the farm as an agriculture, horticulture, or any type of discipline student teaches about the ethics of food and where produce comes from in a hands-on experience that develops agency in a way a textbook never could. 

Students connect with CSA members who come to collect the produce that they themselves cultivated, sharpening their communication skills and strengthening community. Working on the student farm translates to providing food for their peers in the dining halls and connecting with the infrastructure of the Michigan State community while teaching students to be stewards of the land.

“It’s a place where students get their hands in the dirt and they work together and they learn about growing food. They learn about health. They learn about nutrition. They learn about ecology. Gee, they learn about wicked problems.” One such wicked problem involves the access to food and adequate nutrition, something the pandemic helped to emphasize.

The empty shelves of grocery stores and the supply chain issues as a result of a global pandemic raised concerns about where food comes from. Many Americans started growing their own food in ‘pandemic gardens,’ or hoarding canned goods in the face of the vulnerability of large, national corporations. “I remember vividly walking through my grocery store and suddenly saying, yeah, this is why. This is why having a local food system and a local food policy matters,” said Thorp. The student organic farms emphasizes and teaches the meaning of the word ‘local.’

In 2020, the farm sold 308 CSA memberships, a quantitative measure on the farm’s succes in providing local households with, quite literally, farm to table produce. The program implicitly teaches about seasonal vegetables and exposes the community to different types of produce that they may not have considered trying before.

MSU is historically known to be an agricultural school, even named as a variation of ‘Michigan Agricultural College’ for much of its history. “I see the farm as kind of the contemporary manifestation of our land grant commitment,” said Thorp. Other campuses across the country, as pointed out by Thorp, like UC Davis, Duke and University of Michigan have robust campus farms. “U of M has a vibrant campus farm with hard line funding,” she said.

Indeed, the U of M campus farm’s website reads “from the beginning the farm has had the University’s blessing.” As a historical land grant and agriculture university, it is perplexing why more funds and support have not been funneled to a local source of food and “learning laboratory,” as Thorp describes it, especially when MSU’s immediate contemporary actively supports theirs.

Community involvement is key for the farm to gain more traction. When asked what members of the MSU community can do to support the farm, Thorp said “find the way that feels right for you. Whether it’s offering to volunteer at the farm, whether it’s to write a letter, right, whether it’s to write an op-ed piece, whether it’s to write your representatives. I think it’s important […] to be an engaged citizen.”

The student organic farm faced financial turbulence because of COVID and the lack of University funding. As a staple of local agriculture and student learning, the farm should be an integral piece to MSU’s infrastructure as a place where people can learn and connect. “And so one of the things that’s just priceless about the farm,” said Thorp, “is this place where students from all colleges, all majors go to form community around something that they care deeply about. And that’s their food.”

Katherine Denzin is a sophomore majoring in history and statistics. She works as the assistant editor-in-chief of The Red Cedar Log and is involved with a start-up publication about policy, Matters of Fact. When not writing, studying, or pursuing her latest fixation, she enjoys reading, re-watching movies and baking cookies or pretzels.

Image credit: Sarah Geurkink and the MSU Student Organic Farm