The organic farm at The Evergreen State College has been preparing students to own and operate small-scale organic farms since 1992. Kirsop Farm, Calliope Farm, Little Big Farm, Skipping Stone Farm, Helsing Junction Farms are all part of a family of farms across western Washington touched in some way by a graduate of Evergreen’s Practice of Organic Farming program. The associated farm stand allows students to learn first-hand what it’s like to market and sell commercially-grown produce to the public.
“We have a great success rate at getting people on their own farms and starting their own businesses,” says faculty member David Muehleisen. Evergreen’s Practice of Organic Farming program is a direct contributor to our region’s most sustainable food supply at this critical time.
“Students come to Evergreen for this program specifically,” explains Beth Leimbach, the farm’s manager. The program runs for three quarters every spring, summer and fall. David leads the students through academic coursework on soil science, botany and entomology. He also teaches small business planning, lean management strategies and practical tasks like how to get a permit for a value-added product. “The small organic farm is inherently entrepreneurial,” adds Beth.
This includes the operation of a farm stand. “It’s important that the organic farm at Evergreen be modeling and teaching students how farms are doing business today,” Beth says. Small farms across the country are pivoting to adapt their operations to new social distancing and hygiene protocols, and the organic farm at Evergreen is no exception.
Evergreen’s farm stand is now located near the outbuildings of the farm rather than in the middle of campus, allowing easier access for the greater community. Beth and her colleagues built a hand washing station, procured bags to comply with single-use rules and have started looking in to digital platforms that will allow you to preorder and prepay for the items you want, allowing for a quick pick up.
While the program hasn’t moved ahead with the digital platforms yet, the students prepare a weekly email distribution to let patrons of the farm stand know what’s available for purchase. As a patron, you can reserve the items you’d like to purchase via email and pick up your pre-bagged orders on Thursday from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. during the farm stand’s operating hours. Plant starts are self-serve from designated racks, but all other produce is handled and bagged by the students running the stand. They are currently set up to take cash and check; a reliable means of paying by credit card is in the works.
As of late May, the farm stand is offering more plant starts than produce. In normal times, the cohort of 23 students would have spent at least two days a week working on the farm throughout April and May. This year, Beth, her assistant manager, and two farm aides who qualified as essential food production workers right away because of their status as employees under a work-study program, have worked hard to keep farm operations on track.
The students have been in Zoom classes with David at least two hours a day, five days a week, since spring quarter started in early April. “I’ve front-loaded the book work so that as soon as we can get back into the field, we can maximize our time there,” says David. Although there is plenty of book work to be done, the emphasis of this program is to emulate the experience of running a small organic farm as a business.
Students are cleared to return to work the farm in the third week of May. Beth has been working with the college’s deans and Evergreen’s Environmental Health and Safety Committee to ensure compliance with Governor Inslee’s Phase 1 Higher Education & Critical Infrastructure Workforce Training Restart Plan. Students will work in small groups during two shifts wearing face coverings and gloves. Between morning and afternoon shifts, a two-hour break will allow Beth and the farm aides to sanitize equipment and high traffic areas.
Despite this season’s setbacks, David and Beth both express confidence in the students’ ability to work hard and get the farm back on schedule. The situation has given the students an opportunity to problem solve and think creatively about how their work gets done in the broader context of a global disaster. “Everything we do with the students here needs to emulate what it’s like to run a farm, and this situation is no different,” says Beth.
You can support the organic farm at Evergreen by visiting the farm stand on Thursdays from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sign up for the email list by sending a message to OrganicFarm@evergreen.edu.