Following the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, many on-campus organizations, programs and facilities were forced to close their doors. Cornell’s student-run organic farm, Dilmun Hill, was among these many organizations heavily impacted. Each year, four to five student managers are hired to prepare for the planting season in early spring. They stay through the summer and fall to grow, harvest and distribute food produced on the 12-acre farm plot near the Cornell Orchards on Route 366. Unfortunately this year, because of the sudden undergraduate hiring freeze and other newly-introduced COVID-19 restrictions, Dilmun Hill stayed silent for many of the normally hectic growing months. Just recently, however, Dilmun was able to reopen and welcome back two student managers, Brian Caine ‘21 and Lily Cowen ‘21, and one volunteer, Zoe Loomis ‘21, all of whom were originally hired for the 2019 summer. On July 20th, with a year of experience under their belts but an unprecedentedly short growing season in front of them, they set out to make the most of their six weeks on the farm.
Established in 1996, Dilmun Hill has a rich history of serving Cornell and the surrounding community. In its past 24 years of existence, there have been many fluctuations in staffing, funding and location, but the purpose of the farm has remained the same: To engage students in sustainable agriculture and provide organic produce to the community. In the midst of a global pandemic, this purpose is amplified, as national food supply chains threaten collapse, rates of food insecurity spike and the salience of sustainable, community-based agriculture becomes ever more pronounced.
Fortunately, Caine and Cowen were quickly able to restart the farm through generous transplant donations from Blue Heron Farm. Beyond transplants, the farm was also generously cover-cropped with an overwintering rye/triticale, then tarped over in the early summer to provide soil rich in organic matter and nutrients yet sparse in invasive weeds. Caine and Cowen quickly began planting as many greens as possible, as their time to harvest is significantly shorter than many other crops. Within a month, a variety of Swiss chard, lettuce, kale, bok choy, root vegetables, herbs and transplants like tomatoes, peppers and squash brought Dilmun to life. A new perennial garden and a small mushroom growth chamber complemented these new rows of produce.
After much debate as to where this produce would be distributed after the typical Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and Cornell farmers market were suspended for the 2020 season, the students and managers behind Dilmun decided to divert all harvested produce to the Cornell Food Pantry through twice weekly donations. Any excess donations will be dispersed throughout the community through Friendship Donations Network located in downtown Ithaca.
While it’s nice to see the farm up and running, numerous obstacles still remain to be overcome. A shortage of funding this year has made it difficult to pay student salaries, leaving the farm understaffed. Funding for the farm and its managers is typically sourced from the Cornell University Agriculture Experiment Station (CUAES), Harris Seeds, Farmers of N.Y. and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, but many of these programs were no longer able to provide support, and the CSA had to be suspended. Fortunately for Dilmun, they’re cushioned from many of the pandemic’s devastating economic impacts, as they are not expected to turn a profit to continue running. Many other small farms across the country, unfortunately, are facing a worse fate.
Additionally, a community engagement aspect of the farm is missing this year, as no volunteers or visitors are currently allowed on the property. Luckily, however, a focal point of engagement at Dilmun still has hope this season: In-person classes. Under normal circumstances, five plus classes at Cornell visit Dilmun to engage in research, tour the premises and further understand the world of sustainable agriculture. Though in a different capacity, many classes still plan on taking field trips to the farm this upcoming semester. This direct exposure is a great way to foster further engagement with Dilmun, as Caine explained, since many volunteers, managers and steering committee members were first introduced to Dilmun through coursework.
Regardless of the reduced capacity and numerous changes, we are all glad to see Dilmun open, running and supplying the community with fresh organic produce. If you are interested in learning more about Dilmun Hill or ways to get involved, visit https://cuaes.cals.cornell.edu/farms/dilmun-hill/ or join their email list by contacting [email protected] Additionally you can follow them on Instagram and Facebook @DilmunHill to stay up-to-date on farm happenings.
Brianna Johnson is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].