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Feature

Three students at the student farm, Twin Cities campus, St. Paul, with the water tower on the horizon.

Three University of Minnesota students working at Cornercopia, the U's student-run farm on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul. Cornercopia sells its organic produce on Tuesdays, through September 27, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. on the East Bank (Church Street in front of Lind Hall) and at Hampden Coop on Raymond Avenue in St Paul.

Student farm busts out

By Gayla Marty and Pauline Oo

From eNews, September 15, 2005

Horn o' plenty is one name for it--that harvest emblem of bounty, the cornucopia. Every color of mouth-watering edible spills out, from yellow squash to garnet apple.

On a bigger scale (and with a clever name), the new University of Minnesota student-run farm Cornercopia is busting out of a busy corner on Cleveland and Larpenteur avenues in Falcon Heights. Barely more than an acre, Cornercopia is blooming with more than a hundred varieties of vegetables, flowers, woody perennials, and ground covers.

The diversity of the crops is matched only by the diversity of the 13 students running it. They hearken from seven colleges, and about half of them had never gardened before 2005.

The farm grew out of a long-running student organization, What's Up in Sustainable Agriculture? (WUSA), which is part of the campus-community group Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA). In 2004, WUSA students asked about space for trying out some of their ideas. They learned that graduate students could qualify for plots on the University's agricultural test fields in St. Paul. Eight students participated in a summer seminar series and tried out various types of organic and sustainable gardening techniques in composting, soil management, pest management, and preserving produce.

The group then asked for space to start a student farm, and they got it through the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences. But there were stipulations. For example, they couldn't use the farm just to feed themselves; it had to serve educational and research purposes. Last fall, they brainstormed. To what extent would it operate like a business? Should they try to become certified organic? How would they sell or distribute what they would grow?

Part of the fun of this season has been challenging our consumers to try new things, and I think it's been just as much fun for them, trying new things," says Cornercopia manager Jared Ashling.

As winter approached, the field was planted with a cover crop of rye. While the snow flew, the students sought the help of several professors. That led to a new course, Student Farm Planning, created by about 15 students and co-taught by horticulture professor Albert Markhart, agronomy professor Paul Porter, and graduate student Courtney Tchida. A business plan for the farm evolved, and in March, seeds were planted indoors, in preparation for the ground in warmer weather.

Students across campus were invited to submit applications to participate in the farm. Fourteen were picked--one to run the farm full-time and 13 to conduct sustainable farming-related projects. The students receive stipends through private and federal sponsors, such as the Green Lands, Blue Waters program and the Johnson Undergraduate Research Internship Program through the University of Minnesota Foundation.

The farm is roughly divided into thirds. The southern section supports a variety of projects, such as companion planting (growing plants together that are beneficial to each other in some way, such as warding off pests) and a keyhole garden (winding paths that aid weeding and provide a different gardening aesthetic). The middle section has become a comparative mulch experiment. And the north section was planted in woody perennials--so far, apples and two varieties of cold-hardy grapes donated by the vitaculture program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Hot spot

In addition to Cornercopia, the Larpenteur-Cleveland intersection in Falcon Heights is home to the Gibbs Farm Museum, the site for the new Bell Museum of Natural History (possibly opening in 2008), and Christmas-tree central--in December, the Twin Cities campus forestry club sells evergreens on the southwest corner.

"It may sound a little chaotic to have this amount of diversity [on an acre of land]," says farm manager Jared Ashling. "The majority of seeds were donated to us this year, and we didn't know what to expect in terms of production and market response. I expect that at the end of the season we'll look at what grew and sold well--but I don't think we would market just the big sellers. Part of the fun of this season has been challenging our consumers to try new things, and I think it's been just as much fun for them, trying new things."

This summer, the University's employee wellness program sponsored the first farmers market on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis, and the student farm was invited to participate. By August, they were selling produce at several markets and to two food cooperatives and two restaurants.

Although the farmers market along Church Street on the Twin Cities campus is now finished for the season, Cornercopia continues to sell a variety of fresh and organic produce-vegetables, herbs, and flowers-at its market stand on Tuesdays (through September 27) from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. On Fridays, it makes office deliveries on the St. Paul campus. The farm also sells it produce at Hampden Coop on Raymond Avenue in St Paul.

"Transitioning to fall, we have two new interns and new volunteers joining us to help with fall harvest and marketing, cover cropping, outreach, preenial guild planting, and fall cleanup," says Ashling. Harvesting days are Monday and Tuesday mornings starting at 8 o'clock, and Thursdays are typically volunteer time-when plantings and other farm work is done. The student interns and volunteers are on the farm other days of the week as well and often on the weekends.

For more information about the student farm or to become involved with WUSA, contact Courtney Tchida at 612-625-2738 or tchi0003@umn.edu. See also links to WUSA and "Student Programs" on the MISA Web site.

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