Students experience agriculture, business, research at their farm

July 28, 2011

Agronomy student Zoe Higginbottom works the soil at the student-run farm at Purdue University. The farm provides experience not only in farming but also in research and in running a business. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell).

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A new farm at Purdue University is providing practical experience to students who are learning not only how to grow vegetables, but also how to manage a small business and conduct research.

Because they run the farm themselves, their experience is bringing them "Full Circle" in agriculture, a reference to the group they formed to organize the operation.

The students last fall began planning the 5-acre farm west of campus, located across from the Horticulture Park along state Route 26. They are now producing an array of vegetables that includes tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, radishes, onions and salad greens in small plots to test production strategies.

"To learn how to grow a vegetable, you can read about it in the classroom or actually go out and plant a vegetable," said Steve Hallett, a professor of botany and plant pathology and the students' adviser. "This is truly a student farm; they make almost all decisions. In turn, they are learning the fun and difficulties of raising food."

The students' work caught the attention of Ivan Petkov, an instructor in Purdue's hospitality and tourism management program and the university's official chef. He serves some vegetables from the farm at special events such as receptions and is planning to use the farm's yellow tomatoes at a summer commencement program.

Petkov also uses the produce to stock the HTM Café, a learning lab and campus restaurant. He said buying produce from the student farm has enabled the restaurant to lower its costs through local delivery instead of ordering exclusively from a distributor. Vegetables from the farm also have a longer shelf life - a week as compared with a few days for food bought from a distributor.

"What the students have done in less than a year - from planning their farm to producing crops in June - has been fantastic," he said. "My hat's off to them. I can imagine it's only going to get better. This is an incredible learning experience for them."  

The students add to their sales and marketing experiences by operating a produce stand at the farm from 3-6 p.m. every Friday.

This also is the first year for the student organization Full Circle Agriculture at Purdue, which decides how the land will be used and organizes members to tend the farm.

Member and summer intern Zoe Higginbottom, a senior agronomy student from Lafayette, Ind., said she had spent her college career learning about agriculture but had never attempted to grow anything.

"While I knew about the nitrogen needs of the field, I couldn't tell you how much light an individual plant needed to grow," she said. "There have been challenges, like when none of my onions germinated. That was disappointing, but we've learned a lot this first year by keeping records so the same mistakes aren't made again."

Botany and plant pathology senior Nick Arensmann of Bedford, Ind., who plans to go to graduate school, began working at the farm to ensure that research was a good career choice.

"After working mainly in the lab and doing some field work, it's helpful to get this broader experience and find out if it's what I want to do," he said.

Arensmann is studying disease control for his research project. Other student projects focus on the effectiveness of intercropping, or placing different crop species next to each other.

The students intend to build hoop houses - dome-shaped greenhouses that have a flexible, plastic roof - to extend the growing season. They also are developing a permaculture garden, which will emphasize fruit trees that attract pollinators.

In addition to the student organization's work, the farm also will be used for classes during the academic year. Students can take the "Principles of Sustainable Agriculture" course that works directly with the farm, and several classes will use the plots for teaching and labs this fall, Hallett said.

Ashley Holmes, a sophomore from Greencastle, Ind., majoring in natural resources and environmental science, hopes other students  - not just those in agriculture - will get involved.

"Opportunities exist for other disciplines to use the farm," she said. "We would be open to things like a student wind turbine project. Even the production part would be helpful to any career."

Writer:  Lisa Schluttenhofer, 765-496-2384, lschlutt@purdue.edu

Sources:  Steve Hallett, 765-794-7649, halletts@purdue.edu

                   Ivan Petkov, 765-494-5996, ipetkov@purdue.edu 

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722;
Keith Robinson, robins89@purdue.edu
Agriculture News Page

VIDEO: 
Video of students working at their farm can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioxBfu51MvI