Agronomy student Zoe Higginbottom works the soil at Purdue's student-run farm. The farm provides experience in farming, research and running a business.
A new farm at Purdue University is providing practical experience to students who are learning not only how to grow vegetables, but also how to manage a small business and conduct research.
Because they run the farm themselves, their experience is bringing them "Full Circle" in agriculture, which explains the name of the group they formed to organize the operation.
During fall 2010, the students began planning the five-acre farm near campus. Last summer they grew an array of vegetables that included tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, radishes, onions and salad greens to test production strategies.
The students' work caught the attention of Ivan Petkov, an instructor in Purdue's Hospitality and Tourism Management program and the university's official chef. He served vegetables from the farm at special events.
Petkov also used the produce to stock the HTM Café, a learning lab and campus restaurant. He said buying produce from the student farm enabled the restaurant to lower its costs through local delivery instead of ordering exclusively from a distributor. Vegetables from the farm also have a longer shelf life—a week compared with a few days for food bought from a distributor.
"What the students have done in less than a year—from planning their farm to producing crops—has been fantastic," he said.
The students added to their sales and marketing experiences by operating a produce stand at the farm.
This also is the first year for the student organization Full Circle Agriculture, which decides how the land will be used and organizes members to tend the farm.
Member and summer intern Zoe Higginbottom, a senior agronomy student from Lafayette, Ind., said she has spent her college career learning about agriculture but had never attempted to grow anything.
"While I knew about the nitrogen needs of the field, I couldn't tell you how much light an individual plant needed to grow," she said. "There have been challenges, like when none of my onions germinated. That was disappointing, but we've learned a lot this first year by keeping records so the same mistakes aren't made again."
Botany and plant pathology senior Nick Arensmann of Bedford, Ind., who plans to go to graduate school, began working at the farm to confirm that research was a good career choice for him. "After working mainly in the lab and doing some field work, it's helpful to get this broader experience and find out if it's what I want to do," he said.