ALBANY, Indiana — At a glance, the large dome sheltering a rotation of seasonal, organically grown crops could be just one more source of food for the popular farm-to-table movement.
But this 36-by-72-foot plastic tarp over an arc-shaped metal frame, also known as a high tunnel, is nurturing more than just tomatoes, pumpkins and kale.
It’s also a lab for dozens of Ball State students who, since April, have been immersing themselves in the agricultural and logistical know-how needed to grow, protect and sell produce in a sustainable, year-round setting.
“Organic farming is not easy work, but it is rewarding work,” said Kris Green, a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management (NREM). “The organic farm experience is dynamic in that you learn to be a jack-of-all-trades to solve problems not faced in current large-scale agriculture.”
Underneath the growing season-extending structure, which sits on the university’s 100-acre Juanita Hults Environmental Learning Center about 15 miles northeast of campus, Green and other students aim to rotate more than 170 varieties of crops in and out each year.
When it’s time for them to sell the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor, they’re taking the produce to a local farmer’s market. There are plans to begin selling to Ball State’s student-run restaurant, Allegre, and directly to consumers.
So, how and where did this idea germinate?
In spring 2015, students in Jessi Ghezzi’s soil science class inquired how they could get more hands-on experience with growing vegetables. Ghezzi, an assistant professor of natural resources, created a plan for a student organic farm that would benefit the community.
She toured other universities’ farms as research and submitted a grant proposal to Discovery, a women’s collaborative philanthropic group that supports Ball State projects, and gave a presentation this past March.
Getting the grant put the project in very good company. Discovery has awarded funds to several of the university’s most successful programs, including Schools Within the Context of Community and the original musical, “The Circus in Winter.”
A learning lab for hundreds
After receiving a $25,000 grant, Ghezzi selected four students out of nearly 80 applicants for paid positions to build the high tunnel. In the fall, she had two classes of about 80 students each who work on the farm. By the end of its first year, she expects around 225 students from various classes and clubs will have been involved.
“It’s been really good for the sustainability agriculture class because the whole point of that class is to teach them how to go out and start these types of enterprises, and they are seeing it from the ground up,” Ghezzi said. “This will probably be the most informed class I’ll ever teach because they will have seen it from the true start.”
The biggest challenge was the construction of the high tunnel structure. The four students hired to build it weren’t skilled carpenters and had little experience.
“When we first unloaded all of the parts for the high tunnel, we thought we’d have it up in a week,” said Emily Hart, an NREM graduate student.
But with a small team and few resources, a week turned into a month. The delay meant the class’s vegetables had to be grown initially in start-up pots in the basement of West Quad before being moved to the high tunnel.
Tending a garden was also new to some. Ghezzi said a few “had never grown a plant a day in their life.”
So they depended on one another’s skills and knowledge. Hart had designed and expanded vegetable beds for her church’s community garden. It was a natural fit for her to take the lead in laying out the beds for the high tunnel. Fellow NREM students Andrew Imboden and Carson Wright had worked in construction, and Imboden, a graduate student, also brought experience working in vineyards.
Ghezzi wanted them to pursue the practice of companion planting, in which different plants are grown near one another to produce a better yield and tastier end product, such as planting basil near tomatoes to improve flavor.
“I had done research before on this sort of companion planting,” said Hart, of Bloomington, Indiana.
Ghezzi gave the students guidance about crop production goals, but she wanted them to figure many things out themselves.
“We learn the most through our own mistakes and our own bumbling through something,” she said. “I really had to let go of the reins and let them do most of the work.”
All the while, the students researched best practices for planting. In short order, they had:
- built gridlike fences called trellises to support growing plants
- designed layouts for companion planting
- addressed drainage issues
- partnered with the community to add composting
- created spreadsheets to track daily tasks.
“I realized in the first few weeks that this was a group of students who were passionate about this project,” Ghezzi said. “And because of that, they were willing to take way more on. They stepped out on a ledge and did the extra work that would make it successful.”
Community benefits and future plans
Students who grow and harvest the produce are selling it Saturday mornings at the Minnetrista farmers market, but that’s just one step in cultivating the farm’s reputation as a local food source.
Starting this year, Ghezzi plans to delve into the popular farm-to-table movement by selling produce directly to Allegre.
In the farm’s third year, Ghezzi’s goal is to get an official U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label. Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no forbidden substances applied for three years before harvest, according to the USDA.
Ghezzi expects demand for the produce will increase greatly by doing that. Organic produce often commands higher prices.
“Just telling people we are working toward that has resulted in a sold-out farmers market stand every single week,” she said.
The farm’s educational mission is also poised to expand.
This spring and next fall, the farm will partner with Hoosier Youth Challenge Academy of Knightstown to let at-risk youths spend a day on the land. They will be paired with Ball State students to learn about college and careers in sustainability and then work with produce in the high tunnel.
“I like that we’ve had students come out and see what it takes to run a small, sustainable garden,” said Hart. “I really hope that as the garden continues, it’s able to influence more students to want to start their own.”
Additionally, Ghezzi sees opportunities to use the farm to teach others how to start a similar operation. She even has an idea about a canning class.
“I’ve really learned the value of hands-on education opportunities for the students. It’s been amazing watching them learn through this process,” she said. “I’ve learned how to be an effective mentor, and that taking risks and being bold pays off. The chance that it would be successful was worth the risk.”