Feeding the future

Sustainable farming practices nurtured at Stanford Educational Farm

On weekday mornings, the paths surrounding Stanford University's White Memorial Plaza are arguably the busiest part of campus, a freeway of students in a rush to get to their next class. But just a mile away, the frenetic pace disappears on the Stanford Educational Farm.

Located on the western side of the campus, the O'Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm is a 6-acre learning facility and farm that offers classroom learning, community workshops and agricultural experimentation. A living laboratory of sorts, the farm is a space where new ideas and techniques for urban farming are put to the test by students and staff.

Unlike the rest of campus, the rhythm of life at Stanford Educational Farm moves at a much slower pace, marked by the faint sound of hens clucking and scratching in the background, an occasional car driving by on West Campus Road and the soft crunch of grass under Annie Shattuck's brown leather boots. As the farm's program coordinator, she's not only responsible for organizing a wealth of classes and workshops, but she is one of the first people out in the field every day, collecting fresh flowers and vegetables for Stanford's residential dining halls.

"This is a teaching and learning farm, so we're experimenting and prototyping a bunch of practices that you may not be able to do otherwise," she said. "It's all an experiment, and that's a good thing."

One of those experiments has been employing a permanent bed system for the farm's main production plots, a technique where only the field's raised beds are plowed. This allows the untouched pathways between them to go without tilling, allowing for healthy fungi and bacterial growth in the soil, Shattuck said. As winter vegetables like kale, broccoli, leeks and garlic thrive in the raised beds, clover grows abundantly in the pathways, feeding the bees that pollinate flowers on the farm.

While the farm was established in 2014 and broke ground for a greenhouse and two processing facilities a year later, allocating land for an urban farm was a 20-year endeavor by students from Stanford's School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.

"It was really the students who drove this, advocated for it, organized for it and planned it. Students were on planning committees for years before (the Stanford Educational Farm) was founded," Shattuck said. "This wouldn't be here if it weren't for them."

Students from a number of disciplines come together to test out small-scale farming techniques, addressing issues like sustainable agriculture and environmental science. Patrick Archie, a lecturer in the Earth Systems Program and the director of the Stanford Educational Farm, said that students -- with backgrounds from human biology to urban studies to business -- have brought unique perspectives and expertise to the farm. Most recently, the farm planted a number of drought-tolerant crops to investigate farming practices that could benefit small-scale and urban farms.

In the next year, Archie's goal is to establish an orchard around farmed plots, including traditionally drought-resistant trees like figs, citrus, olives, pomegranate and stone fruit. The aim is to promote biodiversity, soil management and water efficiency in the farm through "agroforestry," or growing trees alongside animals and other crops.

With students' help, Archie said he also hopes to prototype new equipment and farming techniques specifically for small-scale urban farms, such as raised-bed plowing machinery, affordable composting methods and IT systems that could track yields and manage sales.

"There's not as much (research and development) in this sector because, here in the U.S., there's not as much demand for it," Archie said. "There's been a recent growth in serving the urban population. We hope to create tools and an urban demonstration garden to teach to scale."

Of the total 6 acres of land on the farm, only one is currently allocated for production in winter and three for summer crops. Plans for the rest of the farm over the next few years include building a barn to serve as a classroom and community gathering area, an outdoor cooking space for nutrition classes and fruit orchards, Shattuck said.

The farm produces more than 2,000 pounds of produce a month for Stanford's dining halls, catering services and co-ops, despite the fact that only a fraction of the land is in current use. The hope is that in a few years, the farm will be able to provide food to the Stanford community and community at large year-round, Shattuck said. With a current mix of produce that includes edible flowers like calendula and borage, and berries, dining halls have been able to incorporate fresh foods from the farm into salads and other seasonal dishes.

The Stanford Educational Farm also embraces diversity through the variety of programs, workshops and community events it hosts, ranging from drumming circles to internships for high schoolers.

One of the farm's most popular events is a quarterly harvest party where staff, students and volunteers gather to feast on pizzas made in the farm's wood-burning oven. Last fall, more than 300 people showed up, and more are anticipated as the farm builds out its outdoor kitchen and dining space this year.

Though it will be years before the Stanford Educational Farm ramps up to full-scale food production, 300 people have worked on the farm in the past two months alone, and Shattuck expects that number will only get bigger as the farm becomes more established.

"My goal is to have a gathering place on campus where students get to learn with their hands and put into practice what they learned in the classroom," she said. "It's really exciting for me. We're growing people and we're growing ideas as much as we're growing vegetables and flowers."

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