May 5, 2004

Students Grow With Dilmun Hill

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A sunny spring day inspires many responses from Cornellians, from playing frisbee on the Arts Quad to sunning themselves in front of Olin Library. But for a small group of students who volunteer at Dilmun Hill, a bright, warm day is a perfect excuse for playing in the dirt.

Dilmun Hill, the University’s student-run organic farm, provides opportunities for students and community members alike to get their hands dirty and understand how a farm functions.

About 50 to 60 students work at the farm each year, with about six to 12 core volunteers, according to Marguerite Wells ’99, the farm’s manager. Along with planting, volunteers also weed, harvest and sell produce and flowers at Dilmun Hill’s farm stand on Ho Plaza.

Students volunteer because they appreciate the opportunity to spend time outside.

“It’s good just to take a break and come out here and do some … physical work where you have tangible results,” said Marc Asch ’04, a volunteer.

Run through the department of horticulture and it will become apparent that Dilmun Hill is the only Cornell facility available for students to get hands-on agricultural experience regardless of their academic affiliations. Although Cornell now runs an organic research farm in Freeville, N.Y., it does not focus on undergraduate education.

“It’s really good to have a place where Cornell students can get hands-on experience in growing food and trees and flowers,” said the farm’s faculty advisor Prof. Ian Merwin Ph.D. ’90, horticulture.

Some volunteers like to know that they are playing a role in growing the food they eat.

“It’s good to see growing things and fresh food,” said Emily Vollmer ’05, a volunteer. “It’s important to be in touch with the environment and conscious of the effect you’re having on it and your connection to it.”

In addition, students appreciate that they are supporting organic agriculture.

“Agriculture is so important to our civilization and it can have such [a] negative impact. It can be really positive if it’s in harmony with the rest of the world,” said Jennifer Nunes ’05, another volunteer.

With the help of its volunteers, the farm produces between five and ten thousand pounds of crops each year. The yield largely depends on the season, according to Wells. She said when the farm opened in 1996, it yielded 10,000 pounds of crops on one acre of land. Last year, heavy rains decimated half of the crops, and the farm only yielded 5,000 pounds on three acres.

The type of crops the farm grows depends on students’ interests and seed availability that year. Along with the typical vegetables, flowers and fruit trees, the farm grows a number of experimental and unusual varieties. For example, they are cultivating Northern-hardy kiwi trees this year.

No matter what crops the farm produces, Wells said that there is always one crop that students plant far too much of. The first year, they grew about 5,000 lettuce plants, which they found difficult to sell.

“No one likes lettuce that much, actually,” she said.

In addition to the farm stand that they run in the summer and fall, Dilmun Hill has a variety of outlets for their harvested crops. During the summer, student managers go door-to-door selling produce to Collegetown restaurants, dining halls and co-ops. Traditionally, the farm donates any food it does not sell to Loaves and Fishes. Beyond these efforts, this summer, Dilmun Hill participated in a Community Supported Agriculture program for low-income community members. In a CSA program, participants provide direct financial support to a farm in exchange for a percentage of the farm’s yield. With the program, Dilmun Hill offered a reduced rate to people who would not be able to buy a CSA share otherwise.

However, the farm cannot repeat the program again this summer because Wells is uncertain of the farm’s funding.

Although the farm could sell its crops at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market, the staff choose not to so that they can maintain a positive relationship with local farmers.

“One of our concerns all along is that we did not want to compete with local organic growers,” Merwin said.

Along with the CSA program, Dilmun Hill does a variety of other community outreach and educational events.

The farm has hosted groups of children from the Montesorri school, Southside Community Center and the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. Children often have mixed responses upon seeing how food is grown.

“A lot of them have never seen food in the ground. A lot of that can be surprising, and potentially alarming,” Wells said. She recalled one time when a child vowed not to eat carrots after seeing that they grew in the dirt. However, she said most children have more positive reactions.

Elizabeth Millhollen ’04, last summer’s outreach student manager, said that she values the atmosphere.

“[Everyone] that is involved, they form this beautiful community,” she said. “[It brings] everyone together on the same page, on the same field.”

Along with community schools, many Cornell classes in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences also take field trips to the farm, which is less than a five minute walk from campus. Students in natural resources, soil sciences and wildlife biology classes have visited to learn about sustainable agriculture techniques, take soil cores and trap animals. The farm also offers a summer class on organic gardening through the horticulture department.

Cornell students can also conduct research on the farm, as past projects have examined insect pest issues and disease-resistant plants.

Students originally wanted to establish the farm because they felt Cornell needed a place where students could experiment and study the growing field of organic agriculture.

“Before Dilmun Hill, there were no places where students could mess around,” Merwin said.

Merwin and Josh Slotnick ’95 submitted a grant proposal in 1995 to build a student-run farm, supported by a group of graduate students interested in sustainable agriculture. Although the grant was rejected, the horticulture department agreed in the spring of 1996 to give the group a piece of unused land in the Cornell Orchards.

In keeping with the original vision of the farm, Dilmun Hill still promotes and practices sustainable agriculture. Specifically, organic agriculture requires that the farmer not use artificial pesticides, herbicides, funigicides or fertilizers on their crops. By eliminating chemical pesticides and fertilizers, organic farmers promote soil and water health.

Dilmun Hill uses a variety of sustainable agriculture methods, including mixing types of crops in one area, rotating crops from year to year and growing cover crops. Cover crops, like clover, can hold soil in place and sometimes add back nitrogen to the soil. The farm also leaves some areas purposely unmanaged. These areas grow wildflowers, which attract beneficial insects that then eat pests.

Despite its environmental benefits, organic agriculture does have some disadvantages. Organic crops are still expensive to buy and grow, with prices ranging from 30 to 40 percent higher than traditional agriculture, according to Merwin.

Also, some organic practices can actually be detrimental to the environment.

“There are some cases where just because something is natural doesn’t mean it is more sustainable,” Merwin said.

Specifically, Merwin said that organic agriculture’s reliance on tilling the soil to manage weeds is harmful to the soil structure. Also, a major natural fungicide used by many organic farmers has copper in it, a heavy metal that stays in the soil.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher
Sun Senior Writer