Good Life

Penn State student farm celebrates first harvest

John Boujoukos, left, and Hayly Hoch carry bins of harvested red lettuce. For the first time this year the Penn State farm club has a new plot of land off of Fox Hollow Road.
John Boujoukos, left, and Hayly Hoch carry bins of harvested red lettuce. For the first time this year the Penn State farm club has a new plot of land off of Fox Hollow Road.

The chard, dappled in sunlight, sat in tidy rows alongside other greens. Hayly Hoch bent down, plucked off a leaf and chewed.

“Buttery,” she said, smiling.

Brushing her hands off on her shorts, the Penn State senior got up and continued traversing the 1-acre plot. Other students worked around her, some tending to the beds while another group assisted with building sheds on the farm’s southern border. A few hours earlier, they had picked lettuce destined for the Nittany Lion Inn.

The six interns were busy, having recently completed the inaugural harvest for the Penn State Student Farm. Hoch, the co-director of the farm’s student club, surveyed the sprouting plots underneath a blue-and-white cap, taking in the vegetables of their labor. (The fruits would come later.)

The farm was two years in the making, with the land — which sits along a fertile elbow of Big Hollow and Fox Hollow roads — being acquired in February. Soil assessments followed in April and by late May, the acre was ready for planting. The club has already sold Community Supported Agriculture, shares to local consumers besides selling wholesale to businesses such as the university’s dining commons and the Nittany Lion Inn.

“This is really like a business,” Hoch said, “for students to be handling that amount of money and thinking about what materials we need, what we can reuse and how can we get the biggest bang for our buck. A lot of students don’t get that experience before they leave campus.”

The quaint yet bright plot of land provides students an opportunity to learn and then execute sustainable farming practices. Hoch, for instance, focuses on integrated pest management — or finding more natural ways to protect crops. She pointed them out as she walked along rows of kale, spinach and parsley.

“Rather than depending on sprays, pesticides, herbicides,” she said, “we’re looking at what are some really creative solutions using physical barriers or beneficial insects to reduce pest pressures.”

Along the fence lay beds of marigolds, their blossoms just peeking out of the loamy soil. Hoch turned on her heel and drifted toward them, over the irrigation channels and past the queues of tomatoes and peppers where her classmate Colin Casto was pruning their branches. Marigolds, it turns out, are useful in repelling cabbage worms and nematodes, tiny pests that can wreak havoc on a healthy crop.

A black plastic tarp stretched along the base of the tomato plants. Left uncovered, they’re more susceptible to blight.

A few fields away, the beginnings of a beneficial insect habitat were beginning to crystallize. With some luck, ladybugs and praying mantises will be attracted by the plants the students grow there, Hoch said, and will help keep down plant-killers such as aphids. The group also plans on erecting birdhouses and bat boxes along the perimeter, more homes for natural predators of pests.

“It’s very different from the usual model of education, where information is downloaded to students and they are expected to retain it,” said Mitchell Hunter, a graduate student in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Hunter sits on on the farm’s steering committee, a group of staff and faculty that helps with oversight. A doctoral candidate, he said he hopes to pursue a similar kind of teaching experience as a professor. Hoch, who said she enjoys the hands-on aspect of the farm, echoed Hunter’s sentiments.

The club has the land for three years. The members hope to have a larger site secured before then, Hoch said, and are looking at spaces closer to campus. Hoch credited Leslie Pillen, the farm’s design coordinator, as being integral to its initial success.

“She has been the person who has created the space that students can step into,” Hoch said.

In the meantime, the group is sprucing up the acre, getting it ready for educational outreach and events. Soon, picnic tables will dot the row by the sheds, one of which will be used for demonstrations. The members plan on giving a tour for residents of The Village at Penn State in the next two weeks. They’re also looking to host school groups by the fall.

One activity they plan on doing, Hoch said, is tastings. She thinks it will be a hit with younger visitors to the farm.

If she’s correct, even vegetable-averse children may try the chard.

“Everyone has a stake in the food system,” she said. “You eat three times a day, and this is a great vehicle to talk about sustainability.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy