AMHERST, Mass. – This month, for the first time, students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Student Farm in South Deerfield are harvesting summer crops to supply fresh, local produce to Big Y World Class Markets in Amherst and Northampton. Summer crops, now delivered on Fridays, include cantaloupe and watermelon, cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, basil, cilantro, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli and beets.
Now in its eighth season, the student farming enterprise has grown from two students producing one crop, to today when it engages 12 to15 students per year who produce 36 different certified organic vegetables on six acres of land, for 10 different markets. These include Earthfoods Café, UMass Dining Services and Catering, People’s Market, the University Club and Greeno Sub Shop on campus.
The farm also supports a 75-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program on campus and a weekly farmers’ market in the fall, says farm manager Amanda Brown.
Summer crops are a first for the program, and the partnership with the supermarket chain is a fruitful one, Brown says. “Demand from new summer markets such as UMass Dining Services and Big Y markets gives our students the opportunity to begin production earlier and to expand the number of crops they can learn to grow. It’s great added experience for our student farmers.”
“People are really interested in supporting local agriculture, and we have been very gratified that consumers are beginning to ask for some of our crops, like spinach, broccoli and butternut squash. The quality is high.”
In 2013, Big Y made a $150,000 five-year funding commitment to the student farm in recognition of its value to the community, confirms Kevin Barry, produce manager for the Springfield-based supermarket chain. Brown points out, “Big Y has been fantastic to work with. They are so encouraging to these students and very supportive of the university. Big Y’s generous sponsorship will help sustain this program into the future.”
She adds, “Our collaboration with Big Y has added so much to the curriculum. Students learn that they’ve got to deliver what they’ve promised. They learn about quality control and pricing. We visit Big Y’s distribution center and they learn so much about the produce industry and how it works in the region, nationally and even internationally. The course really opens their eyes to how food is produced, transported and delivered in this country. Kevin Barry and Big Y are a big part of that overall education. It’s a valuable, hands-on opportunity to experience how local farms can actually work with a wholesale operation.”
When the pilot project with Springfield-based Big Y began in 2012, student farmers delivered about 100 lbs. of certified organic vegetables per week to one store in Amherst for 10 weeks. Consulting with Big Y produce manager Barry, they quickly concluded that consumer demand could support more, so they increased this to an average of about 300 lbs. per week for 10 weeks to stores in Northampton and Amherst last year.
Each fall, students who are accepted into the program sign up for one five-credit farm practicum course per semester. When they begin most have never worked on a farm, driven a tractor or planted a field.
Farm planning starts each spring semester with students estimating fall harvest demand in pounds and working back from harvest goals to make a production detailed plan that starts with seed orders and includes estimated losses, germination rate and fertility, organic pest management needs and costs. Each student is responsible for developing a production plan for three crops.
In summer, the farm supports six students, who can choose to either receive academic credit or to be paid for their labor. All income goes to support the program, for example to pay for next summer’s labor and other expenses needed to run the farm.