As an intern at the Dr. Keiko Miwa Ross Student Farm at Penn State, Sarah Bett has the opportunity to work with sustainable agriculture and food education alongside other interns and Student Farm Club members.
The off-campus farm is located at the intersection of Big Hollow Road and Fox Hollow Road in State College — about a one-mile walk from campus — and club members also work at on-campus greenhouses and gardens.
“As an intern, it is kind of referred to as an experimental outside education opportunity, so we do a lot of work with sustainable agriculture and helping students get a better understanding and appreciation for where their food comes from and how to grow that food, Bett (senior-community, environment, and development and Spanish) said.
Bett also holds an executive role as treasurer for the Student Farm Club with her internship, and at the farm, “different people do different things, [interns and the club] all technically have different roles.”
However, amid the coronavirus pandemic, members weren’t as involved in the roles and rather have transitioned to doing a “little bit of everything,” Bett said, such as “giving tours, helping in the high tunnels and helping in the fields. ”
“It’s a student farm, so it’s student run,” Bett said.
Time spent at the farm “depends on the person and on the season,” Bett said.
“Summer interns will be working as full-time employees — almost 40 hours a week, and during the school semester, [interns] work anywhere from five to 20 hours a week,” Bett said.
Bett said the “main point” of the student farm is to get people involved and “to have a better appreciation of food systems, sustainable agriculture, being outside more and being connected with the dirt.”
For Bett, environmental sustainability is something that “affects all of our lives.”
“No matter how involved you are in food systems or in the environment, we all have a role to play in the well being of the environment,” Bett said. “Having a better understanding of how we impact it and how it impacts us helps to make us better people.”
Field Production Manager of the Student Farm Club Vancie Peacock has also been an intern at the farm since May 2021.
She and the other interns “take care of the farm on a day-to-day basis and do all the planting, harvesting and maintenance of the crops,” Peacock (sophomore-biochemical engineering) said.
Through the winter — the season where not much is harvested — the interns “do tool maintenance,” according to Peacock.
“We have high tunnels on our farms, so we can do a little bit of growing in the winter,” Peacock said.
Other than the off-campus farm, Peacock said she’s “been involved with the development of a new on-campus [pocket] garden.”
As a freshman, Peacock helped to “write a proposal” asking Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College for funding.
“[The proposal] kind of outlined how [the garden] would be maintained and what the purpose of it was,” Peacock said.
Peacock said for her, the purpose was to “engage students on campus” and “bring the student farm to central campus to get people curious about it.”
As field production manager of the club, Peacock said her job was to “serve as a liaison between the club that meets every week and the actual farm space itself.”
“If there are any students on campus who want to get involved in the farm or have project ideas that involve the physical space, I would be the point person,” Peacock said. “I organize work days on the farm for club members, managed another on-campus garden and the rooftop garden — we had weekly workdays in the fall semester where 10 students would come and take care of the garden, and we donated that food to the Lion’s Pantry.”
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Peacock said she had been “interested in agriculture and wanted to be a farmer” as a kid, so when she arrived at Penn State, she was “excited” to get involved with farming.
She said she was also “passionate” about “being able to bridge the gap between students, agriculture and our food systems.”
“I feel like you are not always thinking about where your food comes from and what all goes into that,” Peacock said. “Not everyone has food growing skills, but I think in my experience, it is really empowering to gain those skills — so I really wanted to help engage more students in that.”
Peacock said she “definitely” has some favorite memories from the farm, but the first one that came to mind was working during the hot summer days.
“In the summer when it was really, really hot outside, we would be working out there all day, and we would do this thing we called ‘bucket showers’ — we would fill buckets with cold water and take turns pouring them on each other’s heads,” Peacock said. “It would feel really good, but we would dry off in like five minutes because it was so hot.”
Regarding environmental sustainability, Peacock said she believes everyone should be more informed because “it affects everyone.”
“It doesn’t matter what field of work you are in, I think you can find a connection with anything to environmental sustainability,” Peacock. “We need to have an environment that can not only support the natural world as it is but also support us and us eating — we can’t destroy the land.”
Other than the off-campus farm and on-campus gardens, students involved with the student farm also work at greenhouses.
As Hydroponics Production Manager for the Student Farm Club, Cole Connolly said he’s “kind of a leader for the greenhouse.”
“We have a dedicated hydroponic greenhouse, across from the [Berkey] Creamery,” Connolly (senior-plant sciences) said.
Connolly said hydroponics is “really different” from normal farming because “sometimes, it doesn’t require as much attention, but other times, it requires way more.”
“In the beginning of a planting cycle, we will seed the lettuce in an area and then transplant it to a normal hydroponic system — then you kind of just wait for it to grow to harvest,” Connolly said. “So that part of it I will go in like up to five hours a week, but on weeks where we are done harvesting, we have to wait for the new plants to grow and to transplant in — so some weeks we don’t have any work to do.”
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Inside the greenhouse, Connolly said he helps “run the systems,” as they produce mostly “leafy greens.”
“We grow lots of different types of crops, such as flowers and tomatoes over the winter, and now, we are moving into cucumbers,” Connolly said. “So it’s like a little bit of everything, but the stuff we sell is really only the lettuce and basil.”
Hydroponics is “pretty new technology,” Connolly said. “It is beneficial to understand why it’s different and why it’s better in some situations,” such as cities and urban areas where people “don’t have access to a lot of fresh food.”
“At the end of the day, even if you only understand that hydroponics is able to have less of a long-term footprint on the environment because of water saving, if you choose to buy hydroponics, that helps support hydroponic growers [and] continue their innovation,” Connolly said.
Claire Byrnes serves as the executive director of the Student Farm Club, which means she “helps to support the other student leaders” — such as Bett, Peacock and Connolly.
Byrnes (senior-anthropology and geography) said the Student Farm Club is associated with the student farm as the “main outreach education.”
“In the farm space, we also have paid student interns, which is really great,” Byrnes said. “Some of our people in the club are also interns, so there’s that overlap.”
Staff members are also present on the farm to help aid the students.
“We have a farm manager who is new this year, so he helps with day-to-day operations.” Byrnes said. “We have a food systems coordinator who helps with the outreach and education — she is involved with the tours on the farm and managing volunteers. Then we have our associate director, Leslie, who has been around since the beginning of the club.”
So the farm has “three staff, four acres and a lot of students,” Byrnes said.
Produce harvested at the farm is bought through Penn State Extension’s Community Supported Agriculture.
“That is where you buy into a share, and then you can pick up produce weekly,” Byrnes said.
Byrnes said produce is also sold to the dining halls, such as lettuce and tomatoes — “basically the salad bar.”
The Lion’s Pantry has started donating produce from the farm as well — “we have held the produce in our own space and offered it to students to pick it up free of charge,” Byrnes said. Although the Lion’s Pantry is “under construction and renovation so they are getting refrigerators on campus,” where it will be able to store the produce.
The farm plans events as well, such as the Harvest Festival and plant sale.
“In the fall, we planned our Harvest Festival that had over 800 people, so that was a huge event,” Byrnes said.
Byrnes said the plant sale is the farm’s main fundraiser, which will take place from 11 am to 5 pm on April 29, and “we sell hundreds of vegetable plants, flowers, native plants.”
“The club is really focused on these opportunities and events being student led — kind of made for students, by students.”