Michelle Obama recently released a book designed to get Americans to pay more attention to the food they eat. That is what the K-State Farm Club has been doing since 2007 at the Willow Lake Student Farm. Using sustainable methods of planting crops, the Farm Club provides a place to learn farming and promotes organic agriculture.
Rhonda Janke, associate professor of horticulture, co-founded the Student Farm in 2007 with Lani Meyers, a senior in horticulture at the time. Meyers researched 60 student farms over the country and found that only 20 of them were at agricultural schools; the others were at liberal arts colleges.
“Here we are at an ag school. It’s better to have one,” Janke said.
Students obtained a two-acre plot where paid interns and the club members practice sustainable and organic methods. They use compost instead of fertilizers, weed by hand and mulch to control weeds. Watering is by a drip system rather than overhead irrigation.
All products harvested at the farm are sold at the Farmers’ Market or to local groceries and ventures. One example: Little Apple brewery buys garlic from the farm. Janke said that over 10 years consumer demand for organically produced products has increased more than 20 percent a year.
In spite of the demand for the farm produce, Janke had to change the business model. Prior this year the farm had five paid interns who were mainly taking care of crops, doing records and monitoring farm expenses. But the money spent on interns’ salaries could never be paid off by selling vegetables.
This year, therefore, Janke decided to sell plots at $30 each. Owners get to keep the profit from the products produced on their plots. Janke said a student can make $50 to $300 from one plot.
“That’s more like real-life farming,” she said.
The farm remains an educational place. Janke, who teaches vegetable crops and food crops classes, spends several class periods at the farm. She also tries to get students in her fall organic agriculture class to come to the farm.
“A lot of what happens at the farm or principles in the science behind organic farming tie into a lot of things that I learn in my classes,” Joseph Hong, senior at horticulture, said.
There are a lot of volunteers, mainly among the Farm Club. Club members do not necessarily major in agriculture or horticulture. The club even has even regular community members. Hong, who is also the president of the Farm Club, said everyone is welcome.
“I’ve seen architecture students, sociology students, people from all over different departments,” he said.
The student farm is also an open space for other departments. Thus, a history professor took her class to the farm to teach American agricultural history.
“She just wanted them to see what farming is like,” Janke said.
Another time the art students came over. Their interest was to make art materials from farm products.
They used some of the soil, and also soil collected from a road-cut near the dam to make water color paints. They used that and some bio-char that was made at the farm for their figure drawing class
Janke emphasized that even though the Student Farm is supposed to be a competitor to the Farmers’ Market, local farmers act favorably toward students and don’t treat them as competitors. Some of them became informal mentors and visit the student farm to evaluate students’ work and give advice.
“It’s kind of a partnership, a way for K-State to be seen as a part of the food community,” Janke said.