Organic Farm Now A Forgotten Treasure
LBCC’s once-bustling Student Organic Farm now sits quietly, as though asleep. The plots that once overflowed with fruits and vegetables are leveled and covered with close-cropped grass. The salad greens and tomatoes that used to grow year-round in the farm’s two large greenhouses have been replaced with brown waist-high weeds. Rotting fruit hangs from un-pruned branches and litters the ground beneath the orchard trees.
The two-acre farm sits on the northwest corner of campus between the jogging track and the northern portion of the Wellness trail. The farm served students and the community for nearly two decades until budget shortfalls led the college to indefinitely suspend the horticulture program in early 2020. Since then, the farm has been out of operation. The college currently has no plans to revive it. “[The farm] served us in our vision of curriculum– what we thought a horticulture program should look like. It was our outdoor laboratory for students to live and learn,” said Stefan Seiter, former Chair of the Horticulture Program.
When Seiter first arrived at LBCC in 2001, the area that is now the farm was a dumping ground for the college’s waste construction material. It also had soil trenches that Seiter’s predecessor had dug for soil classes.
Seiter, however, wanted an outdoor space for his horticulture students to practice organic farming and gardening. In the spring of 2002 the Horticulture Program began filling in the trenches and incorporating leaf compost into the soil to build its first large, 35-by-65-foot garden plot. Over the next seven years, the farm expanded slowly, growing to include two additional large garden plots, a smaller herb garden, a rain garden to the west of the plots, and a composting center.
In 2010, Miriam Edell joined the department as a part-time Horticulture Instructional Specialist. Edell brought a background in sustainable agriculture and, according to Seiter, a “passion to run the farm.” She took on the primary responsibility of managing the farm and the student workers who maintained it, ushering in a period of rapid growth. During the last 10 years of operation, the farm expanded to include two large greenhouses, three more large garden plots, an orchard, a small vineyard, a forest garden, and sheds for tool and irrigation equipment. For a time there were even beehives and a chicken coop.
The farm not only provided opportunities for horticulture students to gain hands-on experience in all the ins and outs of running a small organic farm, but it also provided resources for the community. The Horticulture Small Farms Program provided subscribers to their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes with fresh produce during the growing season. The program donated extra produce to organizations such as the local food bank and the LBCC Parenting Program.
In 2018, the Veterans Garden was established on the farm to give students who are military veterans a place to relax while gardening. For a time, the farm also rented out garden space to both LBCC students and members of the community. In 2019, the Horticulture Program was in talks with the Community Services Consortium and Jackson Street Youth Services to begin a youth farming program, but ended with the announcement of the Horticulture Program’s suspension.
According to Seiter, funding for the farm was largely piecemeal and came from lab fees for the horticulture classes, sales of produce and plants, and private donations for capital projects like the irrigation system. Many of the fruit trees were donated, as were materials for the greenhouses, sheds, and composting center.
Today the farm continues to fall under the responsibility of the Division of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (SEM). Kristina Holton, the Dean of SEM, says that neither SEM nor the college currently has plans for it.
“Without Miriam’s [Edell’s] role to spend time maintaining the space, we don’t have the capacity to maintain the farm the way it was being maintained previously,” she said. So the goal of the college is to, “keep it mowed so at least maintenance can keep it from being a liability.”
Michael Brady, interim director of LBCC Facilities, concurred with Holton’s assessment, saying that the difficulties caused by the ongoing pandemic have left Facilities down to a “skeleton crew.” Unable to assume the labor costs for maintaining the organic farm, Facilities has leveled the land, plowed the plots, and seeded it with grass to control the growth of weeds.
Brady says that Facilities will try to maintain weeds between the fruit trees as time permits, but will not prune the trees. In the meantime, he acknowledged that without maintenance, farm structures like the greenhouses will eventually break down due to weather and the sun’s ultraviolet light.
Despite the farm’s current state, both Seiter and Brady hope that one day the farm will once again be a valuable resource to students and the community. Seiter said that the farm could still provide a mix of uses for classes in different departments such as Biology and Art. He also suggested continuing to use the farm for community garden space. Brady was concerned about the college taking responsibility for outside community groups using the farm but, “if we could get a program or a student group that wanted to run something back there, I think that would be awesome!” he said.
Edell said closing the farm was “a real loss for the community. It was a great resource.” Still she believes that it would be difficult for student groups to run the entire farm on their own.
“Truth be told, farming is a lot of work. It’s the rare person who wants to dig in the dirt and sweat.”
Maintenance of the farm “is constant,” and at the height of its operations the farm required the efforts of not just Edell but also three work/study students and a part-time greenhouse assistant. Even with all of that, Edell added, “I could have used another full-time person just to keep the place neat.”
For more information: Contact Kristina Holton, Dean of Science, Engineering and Mathematics, at email@example.com.