Graduating seniors plant seeds for future student farm

The idea of a student-centered farm at Penn State already has inspired dozens of students to become involved in its planning, even though many will graduate before the farm is realized. Julian Subick and Briana Yablonski, two seniors graduating from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, have devoted much of their last year at Penn State to the rigorous farm-planning process, and they don’t regret a single moment.

“When I first heard about a student farm, I knew it was something I wanted to contribute to, because it’s something I would have really liked to have had,” said Subick, a plant sciences major from Easton, Pennsylvania, who twice has taken advantage of summer internship opportunities on working farms. “I didn’t come from a farm background, so getting as much exposure as possible to how a farm actually works is helpful. It’s important to see how what you’re learning in the classroom is going to apply.”

Subick contributed in multiple ways to the Student Farm Initiative, which includes plans for a new minor in sustainable food systems and has engaged more than 300 faculty, staff and students from across the University since its planning process formally commenced in April 2014 with funding from the Sustainability Institute’s Reinvention Fund. Working with Student Farm Design Coordinator Leslie Pillen, Subick conducted a one-credit independent study research project this spring that examined different technologies that may someday be utilized by the farm, including plastic mulches, water-conservation solutions and renewable energy.

He also completed a project for PLANT 461, taught by Associate Professor of Horticulture Robert Berghage and Associate Professor of Crop Production and Ecology Heather Karsten. The project, which Subick completed with three other students, explored a unique marketing model — a winter CSA — that would help the farm engage with students outside of the typical summer growing season. And he attended weekly meetings of a student group that, with the help of Pillen, organized its members to assist with the student-farm planning process — an experience Subick found especially valuable.

“Watching Leslie and seeing how she navigated her way around all the people involved showed me how important it is to network and get as much feedback as you can while planning a project as big as this,” he said, adding that he appreciated how much freedom students have to participate in the planning process. “Each week, we had to figure out what we needed to do or we had a different issue to vote on. Leslie directed and organized it, but ultimately, she wanted it to be our final say on a lot of things.”

The 15 to 20 students who attended these weekly meetings have been quite productive. In just two semesters, they developed a logo, tabled at several on-campus events, participated in a 5K race, and organized a film screening and plant sale to raise awareness about the initiative.

Yablonski, a plant sciences major from Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, also was involved in these weekly meetings and valued the opportunity to invest herself in something for longer than one semester. “I have learned so much from the experience, especially since it’s been a whole year,” she said. “With classes, you get excited about a new subject, and then the semester ends. This has been more ongoing, and I’ve learned how to work through both the challenges and rewards that have come with it.”

Woman standing in greenhouse, surrounded by vegetable seedlings.

Briana Yablonski, who served as president of the Sustainable Ag Club, helped organize a plant sale held on May 1, 2015 to benefit the Student Farm Initiative. 

Image: Penn State

Through a two-credit internship supervised by Karsten and Pillen, Yablonski also conducted research that contributed to the farm’s planning process: a detailed examination of other student farms around the country that employed both Web-based research and a survey of student-farm managers. Yablonski wrote the survey with Pillen’s help and found it to be an eye-opening experience.

“It was the first time I’ve ever done a survey, and it was a lot more complicated and detail-oriented than I was expecting,” said Yablonski. She explained that, as a plant sciences major, she really enjoyed the chance to dabble in the social sciences, learning how to word questions and design a survey that was thorough enough to get the information she needed without being so long as to turn off survey takers.

Her survey focused particularly on the workforce and financial resources at other student farms, and she received roughly 20 responses. Yablonski also conducted Web-based research, compiling a more complete list of existing student farms (There are more than 90 across the U.S.) and filling in details on how these farms operate. She presented her research results during a poster session at the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium conference in November.

“The information we got was helpful,” she said. “Just looking at what farms exist, where they are in the country, how they started, how many acres, where their produce went, whether they had paid student interns or volunteers or people who worked for credit — it showed me how diverse all the different on-farm operating systems are, and that there isn’t one right answer.”

Yablonski said that’s been an important lesson to her and to other students, who have at times been frustrated by the planning process. “A lot of people have questions, especially students, and a lot of times the answer has been, ‘We’re trying to figure it out right now and we don’t really know,’” she said. “It’s important to find the model that fits best for Penn State. We’re not going to be able to base it on one other school’s farm — it’s going to be a combination of different methods that work best for here.”

More information about the Student Farm Initiative and the proposed Sustainable Food Systems minor is available online.

Media Contacts: 

Leslie Pillen

Penn State Student Farm Design Coordinator

Last Updated May 18, 2015