September 18, 2007

C.U. Farm Promotes Local Organic Food

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As interest in agricultural sciences increases at Cornell, Dilmun Hill, the University’s student-run farm is offering student farmers and those studying agricultural science the opportunity to learn about the benefits of sustainable agriculture.
Located on a 12-acre plot of land on Rt. 366 and next to the Cornell Orchards, Dilmun Hill is one of the largest student-run farms in the country. About 30 students, spanning several colleges and majors, operate the farm independently and participate in all aspects of farming — from planning to harvesting to transporting the crops.
The farm presents “an unmatched opportunity for students seeking a hands-on learning experience and wanting to be more involved in their food system,” said Ben Scott-Killian ’09, one of the farm’s managers. Students use the farm for both informal agricultural training as well as an outdoor classroom for academic work.
Each year, the managers and volunteers learn through experimentation, relying on the advice and inspiration of the previous year’s leaders.
“As a farm manger, you are essentially thrown into this great arena, starting from scratch each year,” said Scott-Killian, who has been involved with Dilmun Hill since he was a freshman.
“It is a democratized decision-making process. It’s not all about the managers. We collaborate and consult with soil specialists, environmental specialists, other farmers and students,” said Patrick Castrenze ’09, another farm manager.
Several faculty members and graduate students also use the farm for more formal educational experiences.
Julie Grossman, program coordinator for the agricultural sciences, uses the farm for the lab component of her organic food and agriculture class. She said the farm has been a key resource for illustrating concepts in sustainable agriculture to students.
Last summer, Grossman used the farm to illustrate the concept of “food miles,” the distance and resources spent on transporting food between the producer and consumer, to a group of prospective students.
“They were able to pick their own garlic here on the farm. By contrast, just think about how much carbon dioxide is used in transporting garlic from a farm in China to the local supermarket,” she said.
Grossman, a soil ecologist, said the farm strives to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.
Dilmun Hill employs environmentally friendly practices like limiting water use, eliminating synthetic fertilizers and keeping only three and a half of the farm’s 12 acres in production to allow time for nitrogen and other nutrients to return the soil, according to Castrenze.
“The way we grow things has a lot of integrity: we grow as a community, harvest as a community, and give back as a community,” Castrenze said.
As for part of its community-based sustainability, this year the farm forged a deal with the new Manndible Café. On Sunday afternoons, volunteers harvest and then haul hundreds of pounds of produce by bicycle to Mann Library, including the “Dilmun Salad Mix”—a blend of Asian greens, head greens and edible flowers. The group also sets up a farm stand Monday afternoons in front of Mann Library.
Since Dilmun Hill is financed through a $10,000 grant from the New York State Farmers Association, the managers and Grossman both agree that it is impossible to determine whether the farm is economically sustainable. Scott-Killian also said that the farm’s yield varies significantly on a yearly and even weekly basis.
“The farm is the best educational experience I’ve had at Cornell,” said Hannah Sadtler ’08, a former farm manager. “The general consensus here is that more support is needed from the University.” Sadtler noted the farm’s deer problem, which could be remedied by a perimeter fence, which she said was proposed to the University three years ago.
In accordance with the increased interest in sustainable agriculture, especially with the approval of the sustainable agriculture component of the Agricultural Science CALS major last year, Grossman expects Dilmun Hill to be used more frequently in the future. She added that in order to accommodate this boost in interest, a useable classroom on the farm would be helpful and would encourage more faculty members to use the facility.