Just a few years ago they were a couple of kids sitting around a table with nothing but an idea. Now, they’re 40 members strong and have been successful in beginning a large series of environmental sustainability solutions on campus. Members of Penn State’s Student Farm Club have changed the idea of what it means to be environmentally friendly on a college campus.
The club, a branch of the Sustainable Food Systems Program at Penn State, works to maintain the Student Farm, a one-acre vegetable farm located at the intersection of Fox Hollow Road and Big Hollow Road. The farm serves as a laboratory for learning, as well as a community-friendly space for people to come together and learn about what it really takes to harvest local food. Students in the club aim to use the farm to facilitate honest conversation about the need to create sustainability solutions and make environmental changes in the future.
But it hasn’t always been that way. Until recently, Penn State didn’t have this type of agricultural organization, despite being a land-grant university. According to co-director Hayly Hoch, the task almost seemed too daunting — that is, until she found out how long community requests for a farm had gone unnoticed.
“I almost transferred to a school that already had a student farm because I thought it was so incredible, and I said to myself, ‘I need this in my education,’” Hoch said. “But then I decided to stay at Penn State when I heard there was a community that had already been asking for this. I think being a part of creating this program has been much more valuable than anything I could’ve done at another university.”
One of the most difficult aspects of beginning the initiative was gaining recognition from the appropriate faculty and staff. Once the club’s first members were able to bridge the gap between students and adults, the movement finally began to grow.
“This is actually an effort that’s probably 10 years in the making,” Hoch said. “And then it was about three years ago that faculty and staff finally really jumped on board and said ‘Okay, we’ve been hearing that students really want this program.’”
Although it hasn’t been easy, the journey so far has definitely been worth it — and it’s only the beginning. The Facilities Fee Advisory Committee unanimously passed the legislation to provide the club with its plot of land in February. Since then, the club has used three primary guiding principles to make even more progress with its initiatives than members could have imagined. Creating scholarship opportunities, growing the community, and growing the access to local foods at Penn State are all guidelines the club uses consistently to propel itself into reaching more difficult goals.
“Forming all of those relationships last year and working and collaborating with everyone on campus has clearly let us create something that wasn’t here only a year ago,” Hoch said.
Since the farm’s installment, the Student Farm Club has hosted its fair share of events — some even on the farm itself — in order to build community relationships. Local Food Night, Community Check-in, and the club’s first harvest last fall, where President Barron spoke about the need for increased sustainability measures, are only a few of the events the club recently organized. The club has also been successful in facilitating strong relationships with Penn State Dining Services, the Nittany Lion Inn, the Penn Stater, and the Village at Penn State. Members are often able to partner with various classes on campus to offer tours of the farm.
And that’s what the Student Farm Club is all about — bringing the community together for a cause that is becoming more relevant each day. The club aims to expand its platform to all aspects of the Penn State community and that begins within its own membership. Though many of the students in the club are students in the College of Agricultural Sciences, all majors and interests are invited and encouraged to join. Members of the club believe this sense of diversity is one of the reasons the organization continues to grow with such profound momentum.
“It’s cross-curricular,” said club member Bobby Hricko, leader of the initiative to provide locally grown food in Penn State’s dining halls. “It brings people together both inside and outside the College of Agriculture. I see the whole program as an intersection of so many different disciplines, and they all play a totally different role in what we’re trying to do here.”
During meetings, members of the club break up into small groups focused on different agricultural projects. One student is responsible for leading each project, and the groups spend the majority of the evening discussing each project’s progress and what needs to be improved going forward. Creating snacks from recovered food, school gardens, hydroponics, and cricket farming are just a few of the projects the organization is working on.
Though the club has grown immensely, it still faces various challenges its members are constantly working to adapt to. At a school as large as Penn State, it’s still hard to make the program personal — reaching that desired audience and encouraging students to connect with the cause is one of the biggest obstacles for the Student Farm Club, but also one of its most vital accomplishments.
“It’s difficult to break down those boundaries at a school like this,” Hoch said. “Once it happens, it’s a huge milestone. But getting there in the first place can be extremely daunting.”
The club also faces limitations in its accessibility to land. Though it was successful in acquiring the grant for the Student Farm last year, that funding is only temporary. The acre is part of a pilot program that will expire after three years. After that the club will need to find a new spot to keep the farm.
“So then the question becomes, ‘How do we remain accessible to this community?'” Hoch said. “It’s crucial that we keep finding ways to let everyone know that we’re here.”
Despite these barriers, the club is confident in its ability to keep moving forward. Looking back on what the Student Farm club has accomplished in such a short amount of time allows its members to keep everything in perspective. Their love for what they do allows members to take each task day by day, and they only look forward to what’s coming next.
“This group is filled with such passionate students, and their passion is something that’s become quite contagious,” club advisor Leslie Pillen said. “Simply being around them each day is so rewarding.”