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Student farmers make STOGROW a success

By Anna Stevens '10
August 18, 2008

Walking down rows teeming with more than 850 tomato plants as well as eggplants, radishes and a variety of other produce, Kristin Johnson '10 seems right at home. In the midst of her second summer working on St. Olaf's student-operated farm, Johnson exudes confidence and joy that the harvest that she and four other student farmers have dedicated their summer to is worth a second look.

Abby Benson '11 examines the radish crop at the STOGROW farm.
"When we know that we brought in a really good harvest, it is a lot of fun to wait and have it come back out in the student cafeteria food lines," Johnson says.

The St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works (STOGROW) farm project is a student-run community initiative. Started by two students with the help of a Finstad Entrepreneurial Grant, STOGROW is now a fully self-sustaining operation. In its fourth year, the farm's goals remain the same: to practice sustainable farming methods; provide fresh, local vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers to the St. Olaf community; foster agricultural awareness; and to provide education about sustainable food production. STOGROW is one of a growing number of student-run farms at colleges across the country, but it is unique in that it sells its produce exclusively to St. Olaf's food service provider.

St. Olaf students (from left to right) Kristin L. Johnson '10, Rob Smith '10 and Abby Benson '11 spent their summer working at the STOGROW farm.
Fruitful partnership
STOGROW uses organic and sustainable methods to grow and harvest fresh produce that the farm then sells to Bon Appetit, the college's food service provider. Bon Appetit incorporates the produce into daily meals for St. Olaf students and visitors. While Bon Appetit often requests favorites from the previous year's harvest, STOGROW is given the freedom to choose what they wish to plant each year. In addition to using organic farming methods, STOGROW also puts to use rich compost provided by Bon Appetit.

Bon Appetit general manager Peter Abrahamson says the company has a strong relationship with STOGROW. "It personifies what we stand for, in shortening the food miles and connecting with the students. It is a very positive experience for Bon Appetit," he says.

All of the produce grown at STOGROW is purchased and used by Bon Appetit, St. Olaf's food service provider.
This past summer, two student leaders and three student interns planned, planted, cared for and harvested STOGROW's garden. The program works in a two-year cycle, allowing for new student leadership each summer. When a student wishes to be involved on the farm, they go through an interview process. From the 13 students interviewed this year, three were chosen to work their first summer on the farm as interns. When a student returns for their second summer on the farm, they then take a leadership position as Johnson and Rob Smith '10 did this past summer.

STOGROW's unofficial adviser, Professor of Biology and Curator of the Natural Lands Gene Bakko, attributes the success of STOGROW in large part to the leadership of founders Dayna Burtness '07 and Dan Borek '07. "STOGROW has been a perfect example of a student project done so well that the best thing faculty and administrators can do is stand back and stay out of the way," he says.

The student farmers' majors are not a key factor in their ability to work on the farm, but their passion for sustainable farming is. Their fields of study this summer ranged from math and sociology to Spanish and biology, with some environmental studies in the mix. This summer the student farmers have had the opportunity to get to know each other off the field as well. For the first time, all five STOGROW farmers lived together in one of St. Olaf's honor houses.

Community farming
This year's crop at the STOGROW farm includes produce ranging from basil to zucchini.
Johnson notes that the two-year commitment the student farmers make does not allow for enough time to learn all the ropes of farming. Thankfully, STOGROW has a good relationship with local farmers, who give advice and are involved in the farm's year-round needs such as plowing the land at the beginning of the season. The student farmers use this help and advice, along with their own research, to run the STOGROW farm successfully.

"Other farmers act as a good resource for us when we have questions about things such as plants, pests, weather and buyers," Johnson notes. "More than anything, they help us become more connected with the farming community and thereby connected with Northfield."

Visitors welcome
Although STOGROW sells its produce exclusively to Bon Appetit, everyone is welcome to visit the farm and check out the wide variety of plants. STOGROW is located just west of the St. Olaf campus at 8997 Eaves Ave. (off Highway 19 on the "hospital" road), directly behind the Cannon River Watershed Project. Anyone who is interested is encouraged to visit the farm when the student farmers are working.

"Understanding the process of what it takes to get what we eat is really important," Johnson notes. "That is one reason why we have the kids from the community come out and welcome everyone. It is important to know what we are eating."

This year's produce
  • Tomatoes -- multiple varieties including cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, early and late varieties, etc.
  • Basil
  • Eggplants
  • Squash
  • Carrots
  • Zucchini
  • Green beans and purple beans
  • Celery
  • Cucumbers
  • Flowering cabbage (a variety of kale)
  • Green peppers
  • Peas
  • Onions
  • Beets
  • Radishes
  • Lettuce
  • Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or