Working at Student Farm Provides Some Food for Thought

August 31, 2016

By Chuck Carlson

Tom Martin. ’17, has spent all summer working at the Albion College Student Farm, which grows fruits and vegetables for sale at the College and at the local farmers’ market.

The temperature is approaching 90 degrees and the sun beats down with a relentless indifference. And as he wades through a sea of ripening fruits and vegetables, Tom Martin, ’17, has a look on his face not unlike a concerned father watching over his children.

“They are kind of like my kids now,” Martin says.

Except, of course, they’re not.

In the middle of a rugged Michigan summer that was either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, he is watching over the welfare of tomatoes and carrots, squash and corn, beans and potatoes, pumpkins and cantaloupes, along with 10 varieties of herbs.

And since May, when Martin and his colleague Cristino Hoban, ’17, took on the project, it has evolved into something more special than they could have imagined.

“You grow food for people,” Martin says. “That’s a cool concept.”

Carved out of a small plot of land behind the Whitehouse Nature Center, the Albion College Student Farm has found a home on 29½ Mile Road.

Originally created through professor Tim Lincoln and the College’s Center for Sustainability and the Environment and originally located near Victory Park, it found new life in 2012 thanks to the donation of a “greenhouse on wheels” by Linda and Rich Baird, ’78, in the name of their daughter, Jessie, ’11, who helped found the original Student Farm.

Since then, David Green, director of the Whitehouse Nature Center, has taken over as the coordinator of the farm and works with a handful of volunteers, many of whom have only a passing knowledge of gardening and next to none of farming.

But Green says many of them, like Martin and Hoban, embrace what it all means.

“Most of the students who have worked at the farm in past summers have had some gardening experience helping their parents or grandparents out,” Green says. “But when you take it from preparing ground all the way to harvesting and selling what you grow, you really become attached to it.”

And actually, he stresses, it’s even more than that.

“You have to be responsible and patient and willing to learn new things,” Green says. “It’s very hard work. It teaches them a lot about working the land and it gives you a real appreciation of making something out of nothing.”

‘I Can Grow Food’

This summer, Martin, a biology major from Wyandotte, was hired to work 40 hours a week on the farm—planting, watering, weeding, harvesting and eventually selling the goods at the Albion Farmers’ Market and to the College, which uses the produce in Baldwin Dining Hall. If there’s extra produce, Martin will set up a table in the lobby of the Kellogg Center. All proceeds go back into the maintenance of the Student Farm.

“There’s a whole business side to gardening and we want to have an impact,” Green says. “We want to educate our faculty, staff and students about growing and supporting local farming.”

And Martin has certainly gained a new appreciation for farmers.

“Oh yeah, you could say that,” he says with a laugh. “Especially when it’s 95 degrees and you have to get the weeding done.”

He has done it willingly because, as he learned early on, it’s what needs to get done. Both Martin and Hoban have been paid for the summer of work, though Hoban’s duties were split between the farm and work at the Nature Center. He also finished his work in early August, leaving Martin to work the farm alone.

“I find it relaxing to come out here and work,” he says.

While not a large piece of ground, the farm produces several varieties of tomatoes including beefsteak, delicious, Roma, cherry and Siberian red. In fact, the portable growing house is home to rows and rows and tomatoes, carrots, peppers and onions, where the temperature is strictly monitored by Martin.

“It can get up to 120 degrees in here,” he says.

He steps in and smiles.

“Yep, it’s about there now,” he confirms.

The garden also produces radishes, watermelon and beets as well as herbs from lavender to thyme to oregano. “We have a crazy amount of basil,” Martin says. “People will buy two pounds because it’s such an expensive herb.”

Martin, who hopes to get into a career in conservation and has applied to work in the conservation office at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, realizes now that this was not just another summer job.

“I knew pretty much nothing about farming,” he says. “Now we have pounds and pounds of produce we sell twice a week. I can grow food.”

He also plans to return to the farm this fall and winter.

After all, he says, “There’s always work that needs to be done.”

If you are interested in helping at the Student Farm, contact the Nature Center’s David Green at [email protected] or call 517-629-0582.