Low on funds but high on morale, the Student Organic Farm has overcome great odds
Ruhiyyih Young not only has a green thumb, but a green heart. Working with Clemson’s Student Organic Farm, she spends most of her time in the field, rather than under the lights of a lab. For years, the 15-acre farm has provided students with an opportunity to learn about sustainable and organic farming practices, despite the challenges of keeping the farm going with no permanent source of support.
Located on the Calhoun Field Laboratory, off Perimeter Road, the farm continues the agricultural legacy of John C. Calhoun. But 10 years ago, the area was about to become a parking lot when a group of determined gardeners got together and proposed the use of land for the Student Organic Farm.
Low on funds, but high on morale, the group started the project as a small market garden in 2001. Through the years, the farm has grown to include certified organic crops, seasonal vegetables and herbs, cut flowers and blueberries.
Even as the farm has grown, the group has struggled to keep funding. Two years ago, the farm was in serious jeopardy ⎯ changes in the grant programs that kept them afloat meant a temporary loss of support. Rather than pack things up, the farm persevered, determined not to lose the land workers had so lovingly cared for. The first plan of action was to create the Clemson Farm Aid Festival, a concert and farm-centered carnival. All proceeds from the now-annual festival go directly back to the farm.
Support also comes from sales made during a weekly farmer’s market ⎯ held on-site beginning in May and continuing into fall. Student workers run the market as both paid employees and volunteers.
“We’ve been lucky to have received grant funding from various USDA programs, primarily for projects to train farmers and extension agents in sustainable and organic farming methods,” said Geoff Zehnder, entomology professor and the Student Organic Farm’s faculty adviser.
Today’s generation is far more removed from the concept of “growing your own food.” Young and Zehnder believe the Student Organic Farm is an answer to this and could be Clemson’s most valuable resource for teaching students about sustainability and about the importance of locally-grown food. However, the farm still faces the tough obstacle of staying afloat, despite untiring efforts. The team hopes this will change as more people become aware of the benefits of local and organic farming and aware of the great resources the Student Organic Farm delivers to Clemson.
Agricultural students are not the only ones benefiting from the farm classroom. One group of architecture students designed the farm’s building, and another group is planning a walkway to the farm from Perimeter Road to make the area more accessible from campus.
Student farmers have high expectations for their crops, but go into each growing season with some perspectives of an experienced farmer, knowing that farming can sometimes be like a game of Russian roulette ⎯ especially organic farming, which requires more work and on-farm research to determine what works and what doesn’t.
This year, some of their crops didn’t do as well as hoped. Rather than feel discouraged, Young and the other student workers saw the obstacle as a point of growth for the farm and believe that what they learned from this season will better the crops next season.
Young, a junior studying sustainable crop production, first discovered her passion for the earth as a volunteer on a Navajo reservation. Young said she saw “firsthand this culture that made the desert bloom,” crediting the Navajo’s strong identity with the land for their bountiful harvest.
The conversations she had with the Navajo people combined with the lessons she learned from the Student Organic Farm will follow Young for many more crops to come. After graduation, she wants to establish a nonprofit that will promote gardening in communities and re-create food systems in neighborhoods. Her proactive approach to agriculture and nutrition is in part due to her work with Clemson’s farm, where she learned that perseverance, combined with garden tools and a team of determined horticulturists, could make any dream flourish.
With its agricultural background, Clemson is just the place to jump-start this type of organic and local thinking. Young encourages all — green thumb or not — to take a walk down to the Student Organic Farm and dig into Clemson’s rich soil.