A weathered wooden shed that holds wheelbarrows, hoes and other basic tools is the beacon of the Student Organic Farm, a two-acre swath within the larger horticultural research farm at Iowa State University.
On a warm spring evening, a half-dozen students gather here, put on work gloves and begin pulling up weeds from the perennial beds where chives, strawberries, rhubarb and sage are in various stages of growth.
“I didn’t know how passionate I [would] become for physical work,” says culinary science major Heidi Engelhardt.
So passionate, she’s now the outreach coordinator for the farm. Within her major, she says, “people want to work in kitchens and they want to work in big cities. And that is important, but it’s also important to have that farming aspect. And I think I’m very lucky to have discovered that.”
About 20 years ago, as small-scale farms on the coasts began luring shoppers with fresh produce at farmers markets and through community supported agriculture (CSA), the trend also took root here in the heartland.
The Student Organic Farm sends out boxes full of produce to the local community throughout the growing season. Student members can get a discounted subscription price if they work three hours a week in the field.
On this evening, most of the students working the farm have come from the Iowa State agronomy department.
But the appeal of working here is often independent of academic interests, says agronomy professor Mary Wiedenhoeft, who serves as an academic adviser on the farm.
“It’s hands-on learning,” Wiedenhoeft says. “And so that’s why the student organic farm is really unique.”
When the farm was first set up in the late ’90s, in response to a class about sustainable agriculture, it became one of the area’s first to use the CSA model. As the farm grew, so did academic interest in sustainability. Now the university offers a graduate degree in sustainable agriculture.
At a university where large-scale production of corn and soybeans are the primary interests for many students on campus, it’s especially remarkable that the organic farm is wholly embraced, Wiedenhoeft says.
For some agronomy students who plan to return to a family farm, a vegetable operation could be a new enterprise they bring back, she says.
But on this night, most of the students dumping handfuls of weeds into a wheelbarrow for the compost have not grown up on farms. Riley Madole has the one paid job here, as the summer farm manager. It’s the kind of work he’d like to pursue after he graduates in December.
“Not a lot of people in agronomy are going in my direction,” he says, “whether it be straight organic or just reduced pesticide use.”
But he says the faculty at Iowa State encourage various approaches to farming. “A lot of teachers here are emphasizing that the way we’ve been doing it is not necessarily the right way,” he says. “And we need to be open to change sometimes.”
Running this farm, students learn to grow food, manage a business and recruit others to get involved. They donate their surplus produce to area residents in need. And of course, they get to savor the fruits of their labor — literally.
“I went out and harvested some Brussels sprouts and they’re now my favorite vegetable,” says senior Becca Clay, who joined the farm her first semester on campus as an agronomy major.
Culinary science major Engelhardt has learned how to incorporate fresh herbs into her cooking. And for graduate meteorology student Kati Togliatti, the discovery was bright red.
“I really like beets,” she says. “We got them in our box last year. I’ve never had them before because they’re red, and an odd color, but they’re really good.”
This season the students will grow about 40 different fruits, vegetables and herbs. And they’ll help cultivate interest in organic farming among the fresh batch of Iowa State students who sprout up in this fall.
Amy Mayer is a reporter based at Iowa Public Radio. This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture. A version of this post originally ran on the Harvest website.