Where Are Your Tomatoes From?

Posted on December 4th, 2009 by

Jordan Walker and Lucas Neher work at the Big Hill Farm. (Photo Submitted)

Jordan Walker and Lucas Neher work at the Big Hill Farm. (Photo Submitted)

Written by Hanna Schutte ’11

Take a drive to St. Peter, go up the hill, drive just beyond the President’s House and the Linnaeus Arboretum and you’ll see something you won’t quite expect—a farm. Specifically, the summer of 2009 was the first year for Big Hill Farm, an entirely student-conceptualized and student-managed organic farm dedicated to providing the Gustavus community with locally grown produce.

The project was launched in the spring of 2009. Gustavus alumni Eliza Swedenborg ’09 and Cat Wiechmann ’09 are the founders of Big Hill Farm. “In the past 15 years, we’ve had many people come forward recommending the need for Gustavus to have a farm. Eliza and Cat were the first two to come in and ask how to make it work,” says Gustavus Director of Dining Service Steve Kjellgren. “They asked what we could use in the MarketPlace, and from there they ran with it.”

The acre of land for Big Hill Farm was provided by Gustavus and its Physical Plant. Student farmers spent the spring months adding compost and preparing the soil for crops. In the summer, four interns spent their days planting, putting up fences, researching, watering, weeding, and harvesting, but mainly lots of weeding. “We should still be out there weeding,” said Sarah Jabar, a Big Hill Farm intern and senior dance and psychology major, with a smile. Produce harvested this year included green beans, peapods, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, and radishes.

Big Hill Farm interns are very enthusiastic and passionate about what they are doing for Gustavus, and each has a unique perspective on why the farm means so much to them. “Humans have a connection to food, and there’s nothing better than being able to relate to your food organically. Working outdoors in nature, and seeing your food all the way from start to finish, is very satisfying,” says Lucas Neher, senior Environmental Studies and geography major.

“I love going out there every day. It’s been awesome to discover and learn,” says Jabar.

“I’ve picked up a self-reliance skill that I can use throughout my life. It’s cool to be able to provide your own food,” says Steve Palmer, an intern and senior history major.

Advisers of Big Hill Farm are quick to point that it is students who had the idea, and the students who operate the farm. “Our main focus here at Gustavus is education,” says Jim Dontje, Director of the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation. “Sure, we could have stepped in and run it ourselves, but that wasn’t the point. We wanted students to be able to learn how to grow by themselves.”

The educational aspects, however, extend beyond just that of the farmers on Big Hill Farm. Over the summer, the students operated a program with the St. Peter Community Center called Volunteers in the Park, or VIP, comprised of fifth and sixth grade students. Every Wednesday VIP came out to Big Hill Farm to get involved with the growing process. “We gave them their own plot of vegetables to tend, and they also helped us with weeding and watering. It was great to see the community get involved,” says Palmer. “We tried to give them something new to do each week. Whether it was painting the shed or weeding or harvesting, we wanted to make sure it was educational for them,” says Jabar.

Sarah Jabar and Jordan Walker show off their produce. (Photo Submitted)

Sarah Jabar and Jordan Walker show off their produce. (Photo Submitted)

The Big Hill Farm also involved a First Term Seminar class to give additional Gustavus students an opportunity for some hands-on learning. The farmers are hopeful that their work to help Gustavus become a more environmentally sustainable institution will impact the campus community in a positive manner.

The response from Gustavus has been very positive. Once the dedication of the students involved was evident, lots of faculty and administrators became interested. “The food service support has been very good—other schools have an outside distributor, but Steve [Kjellgren] has been very open to new, innovative ideas like the farm,” says Lisa Heldke, philosophy professor and member of the Kitchen Cabinet, an advisory board to the Dining Services.

President Jack Ohle shares his enthusiasm for the farm and the impact it has on campus. “These students are living out the mission of the College. Whether it’s growing great food without chemicals, making use of compost, or growing vegetables for Dining Services, Gustavus students have demonstrated tremendous creativity, resourcefulness, and passion,” he says. Students faculty, and staff have all enjoyed having tastier, fresher produce in the Caf; especially knowing it was grown by their fellow students. “We get daily comments from students about how much better the food tastes and how they appreciate having local, organic food,” said Neher.

All those involved are enthusiastic about continuing—and expanding—Big Hill Farm for next year. “We learned a lot this past year; we tried some different ways to grow things, and found what worked and what didn’t. We’re hoping for an even bigger success next year,” says Neher. Next spring, farm goals include increasing the size of the farm, trying some new ideas, and continuing some perennials that were established this year, such as rhubarb and asparagus. There will also be training of new interns to keep the program running for many years to come.

And as for long term goals? “The sky’s the limit!” affirms Professor Heldke. The Big Hill Farmers hope to incorporate the farm’s available educational opportunities with more departments on campus, and that some day there could be a greenhouse for the farm to make local, organic produce available year-round.

So when visiting the Gustavus cafeteria, look for signs that declare the food has been grown on Big Hill Farm. Not only will you appreciate helping Gustavus provide locally grown, educational, sustainable, organic, and delicious produce; you also will know exactly where that sandwich tomato came from.


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