Real Estate

Stanford's O'Donohue farm connects community with small-scale agriculture

Farm yields about 15,000 pounds of produce each year

Stanford University's O'Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm recently received a Citation Award from the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco for being a working agricultural complex. Photo by Christian Trujano.

After working in the tech industry for more than two decades, Gopalkishan Patangay decided it was time to reconnect to his farming roots, so he signed up as a volunteer farmer at the O'Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm near the university's historic Red Barn.

For Patangay, who grew up in India working on his family's farm, being able to get his hands dirty doing farm chores at the 6-acre site over the past year has provided him a unique opportunity to return to his agricultural roots. The Peninsula resident, now retired, said he plans to use the experience he's gained at Stanford to follow his father's legacy and operate his own farm.

The farm was established in 2014 by the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences as a living laboratory for students and is slowly evolving into a space where the community can get a hands-on opportunity to help combat climate change through farm work. The farm hosts tours, workshops and harvesting events and provides food to the school's cafeteria, as well as local chefs who handpick produce for their restaurants, including Vina Enoteca and the Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park.

Patangay said he learned about the O'Donohue farm while volunteering at Los Altos Hills' Hidden Villa farm, a nonprofit that teaches environmental and multicultural awareness. He said he was shocked when he found out about the university's farm because his wife, who works at Stanford, didn't even know it existed.

On any given week, volunteers are out at in the orchards sorting, adding mulch, picking out plants and other similar duties, which are assigned based on ability.

"We welcome all; don't be scared off by anything," said William Chen, the farm's facilities and production coordinator for the past four years.

While the farm grows more than 200 varieties of vegetables, flowers, herbs, field crops and fruit and yields about 15,000 pounds of produce each year, it faces the challenge of too much demand and not enough supply.

"We have enough clients, enough reach, we don't have enough food for everybody so we have to hold back," Chen said.

According to Chen, serving the university is the farm's main focus, so the Stanford kitchen gets priority over others. However, practicing and teaching sustainability also is among the farm's objectives.

"The idea is to promote small-scale sustainable agriculture and have that be part of the solution to climate change, that's the whole point of this place," said Chen, noting that the farm has been recognized for its efforts as it recently received a Citation Award from the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco for being a working agricultural complex and living lab to test social and environmental aspects of farming and agriculture.

Chen said most visitors learn about the farm through word of mouth, its website or by taking classes at Stanford. He said the university eventually plans to conduct more community outreach and make the farm more accessible to the public as the program grows.

Over time, the hope is to offer community-supported agriculture for locals through a "farm-share" program. This would allow people to volunteer and in return, get vegetables and other produce to take home. While a large-scale version of this program is not yet operational due to a lack of resources, current volunteers are given access to food in exchange for their service.

But to Patangay, the educational aspect is far more rewarding than just about anything else, not just for his own purposes of owning a farm but how it serves the students who work on environmental projects there, too.

Volunteer Mark Ferguson, who was first introduced to the farm while taking a class that had a mandatory volunteer component, now visits the farm about four times each quarter to break away from the stress of campus life.

"Slowing down and working with your hands and being connected to the earth in that way is very important," Ferguson said. "It's easy to forget that nature is all around us."

For more information about the O'Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm, go to farm.stanford.edu.

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