The university’s Office of Sustainability Practices oversees the project with a farm manager and some paid student interns. Courtesy Grand Valley State University
With roots tracing back to a student-led initiative in 2008, a Grand Valley State University sustainable agricultural project serves up locally grown produce in meals on campus.
On Nov. 3, GVSU announced a new partnership between the Office of Sustainability Practices and Campus Dining to bring produce from its Sustainable Agriculture Project to the tables at Engrained, a restaurant located in The Connection, one of GVSU’s dining areas on the Allendale campus.
The Sustainable Agriculture Project allows students, faculty and staff to learn about sustainable agriculture in a hands-on farming experience. The collaborative space takes up roughly two acres of land. To extend the growing season, two hoop houses of roughly 30 feet by 72 feet were installed, thanks to donations from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies and the university’s Student Senate.
The project includes four paid student interns who are affiliated with the Farm Club, and a number of student, faculty and staff volunteers. A variety of produce is planted and cultivated, including spinach, leaf lettuce, scallions, turnips, kale, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, corn, cucumbers and herbs.
Dave Feenstra, project manager, said the project began in 2008 when a group of GVSU students approached the administration about having land set aside to operate a small agricultural project. The Farm Club was subsequently developed and organized under Student Life as a formal group. A part-time farm manager was appointed by the university to help coordinate and manage the crops, planting and students. Students from the Farm Club were put on staff as paid interns in part-time student positions to do the farming work.
“That is kind of how it took on a little bit more of a formal process. The university continued to support the program, not only with the part-time farm manager but also by providing approximately two acres of land,” said Feenstra. “In about 2011 and 2012, a couple of the greenhouses or hoop houses were installed by support from various colleges and deans that assisted in some funding.”
The new partnership between the Office of Sustainability Practices and the agricultural project is based on the appointment of the part-time farm manager, according to Feenstra. As the garden formalized into the sustainable project it is today, the university created a funded position that reported to the sustainability department.
“The commitment of the students from the Farm Club is still very much the backbone of the program as far as providing all the labor and so forth. The farm manager is just providing some leadership along the way and keeping continuity of management,” said Feenstra. “It was thought at the time the sustainability department was the best place to be since the farm was changed from the community gardens, which it actually started out as, into the sustainable agriculture project.”
The decision to pursue a partnership with Campus Dining stemmed from the need to find an adequate demand for the produce grown during each of the farming seasons. As a community garden, Feenstra said it didn’t have the best traction at first. Even when they became involved with the local farm market developed by GVSU and a community-supported agriculture program, there was still not enough of an outlet to meet the supply.
The CSA program allows farmers to market directly to consumers, who purchase a share of seasonal produce that is supplied each week throughout the growing season. For the 2014 season, GVSU’s sustainable agriculture project built in 10 shares to be sold, which provided consumers with five or 10 pounds of produce.
“It was an evolutionary process or a multi-step process … but even that didn’t provide enough volume to take off the production of vegetables that were out there,” said Feenstra. “It was thought it was best to go down the road to supplying a local food venue right on campus. It was discovered it wasn’t quite that simple.”
Aaron Johnson, food services director for The Connection and sustainability manager for Campus Dining, said the collaboration to bring the produce to the dining table began about two years ago.
In 2012, the decision was made to pursue the incorporation of locally and student-grown produce into meals on campus. Due to food risk safety assessments, equipment and procedure inspections, extensive training programs and receiving approval from the Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development, the process lasted from about 2012 to 2014, according to Feenstra.
“It took us almost two years to have all the proper certification to actually bring the produce into the on-campus food venues,” said Feenstra.
Through the partnership with Campus Dining, the produce is purchased, prepared and served at Engrained. The revenue generated from the transaction is used to fund the managing of the farm and to pay for the student interns.
“Part of the reason is we need to generate some revenue because the funding for the students’ labor is actually derived from the sales of the produce,” said Feenstra.
Considered a scientific station, laboratory, studio space, field site and business, GVSU’s Sustainable Agriculture Project provides students with an opportunity to learn and experience practices such as environmental problem solving, scientific and applied skills, human-environmental interactions, service learning, and working toward a common goal as a community.