Good Earth: Growing Experience

Sometimes the best education is one you can eat. Iowa State University students have an opportunity to do just that with the Good Earth Student Farm.

Organized as a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, the group puts shareholders – Iowa State faculty, staff and students – directly in touch with the student farmers who are growing their food. The farm provides hands-on opportunities for College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students as well as students from other colleges.

The farm is entirely student managed and averages around 50 shareholders per year. Shares are available to faculty, staff and students of Iowa State. Located at the Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station, Good Earth operates independently from the research station’s produce operation.

“We started planning in February,” says Ellena Wolff, a junior in horticulture and student farm manager for the 2019 season. “We took inventory of seeds, figured out what crops we wanted to grow and put together a cropping plan. Then I got to pick out the cultivars I wanted to grow.”

Tracking every detail is up to Wolff and assistant farm manager, Abby Kennon, a senior in agronomy. They’re mindful of income and expenses, make agronomic decisions and manage the shareholders who volunteer at the farm. Wolff is the only paid employee of the operation.

The farm offers two types of memberships. Paid shares contribute solely financially, while others work three hours a week at the farm and pay a smaller fee. Wolff and Kennon established weekly shifts for the volunteers with work shares. They determined what tasks were to be tackled during each shift, from starting seeds in the greenhouse to planting, watering, harvesting and weeding.

“Working as a team meant we were able to divide up the work based on each other’s skill sets,” says Wolff. “If I was confident in one area, I led and vice versa.”

The full leadership team includes the student organization president, Huong Nguyen, a graduate student in agronomy, and graduate student adviser Moriah Bilenky, a graduate student in horticulture. Guidance for the group is rounded out by faculty advisers Mary Wiedenhoeft (’80 agronomy), Morrill Professor of agronomy, and Ajay Nair, associate professor of horticulture.

The farm started in 1997, but has under gone a few changes since its beginnings. Originally named Heenah Mahyah, after the Ioway tribe’s word for “Mother Earth,” the group was known as the Student Organic Farm for a time as well. Students don’t earn credit or get paid for their work on the farm. Experience is their reward. The farm was certified organic at one time and still follows many of those practices. However, the official certification process is time consuming and can be expensive. For now, the group has opted to forego the certification.

“Our shareholders said ‘we trust you’,” says Wiedenhoeft. “That means the world to us, but it also saves us expense and time of the certification process.”

Everyone who works on the farm attends food safety training to ensure everything is handled appropriately. In addition, they must be trained on various equipment for harvesting and packaging. Being in charge of the entire process from buying seed to the final harvest of the season has been a valuable learning experience for Wolff.

“I didn’t grow up on a farm, so I really wanted to immerse myself and learn what it was like to run a farm,” says Wolff.

Growing up in Dubuque, her interest in agriculture was sparked by a friend who transformed their city lawn in Dubuque into a garden. Wolff found herself helping sell leftover produce at the local farmer’s market. Coming to Iowa State as an undeclared major, she kept coming back to that experience. She just couldn’t shake it. She wanted to farm. Wolff became a horticulture major.

“The Good Earth Farm has been an incredible learning experience and not just from an agricultural perspective,” says Wolff. “I’ve gained leadership skills, made connections and learned so much from others.”

The goal of the Good Earth farm is education. In the past, students have hosted workshops about gardening and canning for the local community. Ultimately, shareholders know the students are in it to learn.

“Every season is so different,” says Wiedenhoeft. “As a shareholder, I know not everything will be perfect.”

As with any agricultural venture, the weather plays a necessary but unpredictable role. Some seasons teach harder lessons than others. Dry and wet years hit certain species hard. What causes one crop to thrive decimates another. All are considerations aspiring farmers must learn to manage.

“The farm not only teaches students how to sustainably grow produce, but also exposes them to challenges and issues of production systems. Learning how to grow quality produce with limited impact on the environment is something students learn day-in and day-out,” says Nair. “Student involvement with the farm also teaches them the value of eating healthy, nutritious fruits and vegetables and impacts their health in a positive way. It is a joy to watch these students grow professionally and personally.”

The challenges haven’t deterred Wolff. In fact, they’ve made her hungry to learn more.

“I still want to farm,” says Wolff. “But, because of this experience I am keenly aware of how much I don’t know yet. I’d like to work under someone, learn from someone for a while before I take on that risk myself.”