Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, the UMass Student Farm Enterprise is still harvesting crops for the Amherst and UMass communities. The Student Farm is a year-long class held through the Stockbridge School of Agriculture where students go through the full farming cycle—from planning and contracting vendors during the winter and early spring, to growing throughout the summer and harvesting in the fall.
Isadora Harper, a Commonwealth Honors junior and sustainable food and farming major, says working on the Student Farm was one of the main reasons she wanted to attend UMass. Harper grew up in Chicago, Illinois, but was first exposed to farming through a high school field trip where she and her classmates worked hands-on at a farm. From there, she was hooked.
“We have an environmental crisis,” Harper said. “Being a part of the solution to that is very important to me. I think doing that through food is a good way...because there’s a lot of social work in agriculture. Social justice causes or agriculture education can be furthered through [farming] while also helping the environment.”
Raina Naylor, a Commonwealth Honors senior and public health major, got her introduction to farming through the Regional Environmental Council, a nonprofit based in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her role on the farm surrounds COVID and food safety protocols, such as enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing. In the Honors College, Naylor has been able to integrate what she’s learned on the farm and in public health to form a policy perspective.
“There are a lot of Honors courses that incorporate policy and food,” Naylor said. “You can kind of combine those things. It all really does tie together, even though it’s not conventional and not a lot of people are doing the same thing.”
While classroom material teaches the theories of farming, there is no better way for students to get their hands dirty than by working on the farm. The Student Farm grows a variety of crops and contracts to sell them through three main market groups: farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs), Big Y supermarkets, and UMass dining.
One nifty process of the Student Farm is that each student farmer annually contributes a chapter to a handbook that is passed down through generations on the farm. Dating back to 2011, the handbooks provide a framework for future student farmers to build from, as well as noting any unique farming circumstances that happened that year.
The coronavirus presented one of these unique circumstances that forced student farmers to adapt on the fly. Summer production was reduced due to students not returning to work the farm until late June, but fall production maintained course. While unfortunate, coronavirus added another example of the kind of chapters student farmers write about in the yearly handbook.
“It obviously wasn’t what I was hoping for in this farming season, but it was an applicable lesson in resilience,” Harper said. “Farming seasons are always unpredictable, there’s always some variable.”
Harper has enjoyed taking independent study courses through the Honors College curriculum that have allowed her to narrow the focus of her classwork and develop deeper connections with professors. She noted one independent study with sustainable food and farming coordinator Sarah Berquist that deepened her appreciation of agricultural education.
“We need to spread this knowledge,” Harper said. “If no one knows about sustainable farming practices, nothing’s going to get better.”
As a transfer student, Naylor has appreciated the Student Farm for allowing her to create a family-like bond with her classmates.
“I’ve been with these same people since the spring and will be with them through November,” Naylor said. “There’s something about hard work and laboring under the hot sun that brings you close to the people you are working with. I became best friends with everyone.”
Student Farm produce can be found in Big Y supermarkets in Greenfield, Northampton, Amherst, and South Hadley. CSA shares for the 2021 season will be available to purchase in March.
More information on the Student Farm Enterprise can be found on the Stockbridge School or Agriculture's website.