Penn State Student Farm Brings Fruitful Discussions Of Sustainability

Jul 6, 2016

Chances are you have passed by Penn State’s one acre Student Farm without even knowing it.

“The farm site is located at a really interesting intersection of 322 and cow pasture," Leslie Pillen said. She points to the highway nearby. "So you have large trucks – semis – driving by on one side and cows – sometimes horses, too – on the other.”

Pillen is the coordinator of the new Penn State Student Farm. Coming from Nebraska and having a master’s degree in rural sociology, she plays an essential role at the farm.

“I am just the main, kind of, boots on the ground, building relationships across campus, and networking with folks both on campus and across the community,” Pillen said.

This summer is the first growing season for the Student Farm Club. A one-acre farm might not sound like much, but in fact, a lot fits into it. 

“We have tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil in field one. I think we have around 900 tomato plants. We’ve got kale, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts..." Pillen said.

And the list goes on.

Pillen says she spent this past year promoting the work of the Student Farm and the idea behind it.

“One of the most common responses from people was, Penn State doesn’t already have that? They were very surprised,” Pillen said.

Although Penn State had a student-run farm named The Circleville Farm in the 1980s, it was transformed to a faculty led program in 1989. Pillen says reestablishing a Penn State student farm was a long time coming, and it’s showing a lot of momentum.

“Even in just their first year they hosted film screenings with panel discussions, they grew food in the green houses to sell to the dining halls, and they’ve worked with some of the schools on helping them establish gardens in their elementary schools,” Pillen said.

Pillen says only about 20 percent of students in the Penn State College of Agriculture grew up on farms, so this is a good way for them to get hands-on experience. About 30 members of the Student Farm Club actively participate throughout the school year. This summer, six interns will work on the farm growing produce and hosting events.

“You’re in Pennsylvania, and this is an incredible place to learn about food because it’s all around you,” Hayly Hoch said.

Hoch is a Penn State senior majoring in plant sciences. A recipient of the Erickson Discovery Grant, she researches sustainable pest management. She’s also the co-founder and co-director of the Penn State Student Farm. She showed some visitors around during a recent open house event.

Hoch says the work of the Student Farm is geared toward three main goals: spreading education about sustainability, increasing access to local food and partnering with the community.

“We are really interested in connecting with the local farmers markets to support local growers and really encourage students to get their produce and fresh foods from local growers in the area,” Hoch said.

Hoch says food is the perfect medium to start a conversation about sustainability. Not many people work on farms, but everyone eats.

“There’s somewhere along the food chain you can connect to,” she said.

The farm’s first harvest will appear on the counters of local homes through a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program. Hoch says members pay for produce before the growing season and receive the vegetables later in the summer.

“Something we can point to as a success at the end of the summer is that we provided for twenty families or individuals, and we are hoping that they are happy with it,” Hoch said.

At the moment, the student farm is planning for workshops throughout the summer. They’re expecting new picnic tables and a wooden hut that could be used as a stage. 

Are you a fan of local food? Check out WPSU's Local Food Journey blog.