In the News: Terp Farm food grown by students, for students

AGNR students and Terp Farm interns Eric Biggs and Shulamit Shroder pose with Terp Farm's lead agricultural technician Guy Kilpatrick.

Image Credit: Allison Lilly

July 30, 2014

(The following article appeared in The Delmarva Farmer on July 29)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — For a few years now, students at the University of Maryland have been able to volunteer at community gardens scattered throughout campus, or find produce grown by local farmers on the salad bar at the dining hall.

But Allison Lilly, sustainability and wellness coordinator at UMD dining services, has long wanted to bring the two concepts together — to find a way for food grown by students for students to be served on campus menus.

And, this year, grant funding helped them break ground on that dream and turn a portion of a 200-acre former tobacco farm owned by the university into Terp Farm, which aims to grow food for both students and the surrounding community.

“The idea is to communicate with (students) that the campus cares about where their food comes from, and this project is a demonstration of that commitment,” Lilly said. “It’s not the only thing we’re doing to source sustainable food, but it’s one of the most recognizable.”

The university’s Sustainable Food Working Group had in 2012 established a goal to source 20 percent of its menu from local or sustainable sources by 2020. And faculty and student members of the group “kept circling back” to the idea that a production-scale campus farm could play a role in the vision, Lilly said. The group submitted the idea to a sustainability grant competition on campus that’s funded by student fees — and won $124,000 for a three-year pilot program on the farm.

The project is a collaboration between Dining Services, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Office of Sustainability. The grant pays for material costs on the farm while Dining Services funds the labor costs.

The farm hired agricultural technician Guy Kilpatric in April and three student farmers for the summer months when classes are at a lull. The farm’s labor costs will go down during the academic year, when students will work at the farm in exchange for classroom experience or on a volunteer basis.

But Lilly said it was important for this project to not rely solely on volunteer farmers, because they want to maximize the output of the two acres of soil they are planting for produce.  “For our first year, we’re operating almost like a giant CSA (community supported agriculture program), where dining services pays for labor and will receive all the produce,” she said.

The university plans to donate up to 10 percent of that produce to the needy in the College Park community, though the details about what a campus food pantry or mobile market might look like are still taking shape.

Lilly said the project hasn’t yet established goals for how much produce might come from the two-acre farm, but organizers would like to see it break even on input and labor costs. After the pilot has ended, the farm could be incorporated into other university programs as a place to grow vegetables, herbs or fruit that would otherwise be too expensive for the university to source locally, for example.

Fifteen miles from campus, the 200-acre plot where Terp Farm is located has long been used for agricultural research and shows how the university’s focus in the field has changed over time. The land grant university used to have chicken houses and a full dairy program on campus that involved students turning the milk into ice cream. Its agricultural focus has changed over time as a more urban environment has cropped up in College Park, but today’s students are more interested in learning about the sources of their food.

Lilly said UMD is in good company as universities across the country return to growing more of their food on site. In the late 1800s, campuses were founded with plots of land set aside for their own gardens, a trend that ebbed and then reached a peak again during the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960’s.

In the past decade or so, more universities are adding gardens that either give students a chance to get their hands dirty or provide food for the campus. What makes UMD’s farm unique, Lilly said, is that Dining Services — and a desire to provide truly local food for students — are driving it.