St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works

Getting to know the plants

Gloria and I had some spare time before a delivery last Friday, so after all of the eggplants, peppers, squash, and beans had been picked, Gloria had the idea to bond with our plants a little bit. The following observation session made me realize how amazing plants are and how little I know about them!

Gloria plopped down next to an Orient Express eggplant and I hunkered down with a bell pepper. At first my attention mostly was directed towards the fruit, just noticing the folds and sizes and shades of green in the sun. I guess it makes sense that it's what captured my attention first - most of what we've been hoping and working for is the fruit, not big leaves or tasty roots (unless we're talking lettuce or carrots, that is!). But then as my gaze wandered, I saw things I couldn't explain, and then the questions really started rolling. Here are some of my observations/questions about peppers:

All around the ground at the base of my pepper, entire flowers with small peppers beginning to form had just fallen off of the plant, almost as if the plant had sensed that it was putting enough energy into the three huge peppers that were already growing. Can peppers self abort when they sense that they have enough fruit? How much fruit is "enough"?

Some of the leaves starting growing straight out of the main stem but then the leaf stem curves and flips the leaf upside down, especially the older, larger leaves towards the bottom of the plant. How does this affect the stomata and gas exchange?

There were a variety of insects clambering on my particular pepper plant, but none of them seemed to be munching on leaves or the fruit itself. I wondered why this was, so I took a nibble of a pepper leaf myself. No wonder nothing was eating it! It was incredibly bitter. What chemical give it such a bitter taste, and does it deter insects?

Later I joined Gloria at her eggplant. Eggplants, at least the Orient Express variety, are covered with very fine tufts of purple spikes all over the leaves and stems! Also, we hypothesized that the purple color has to do with sun exposure because where the cap (what is the term for that??) covers the eggplant, it's white or pinkish underneath. Also, there are large, sharp thorns on the stem as well. They're too big to deter insects (they would just crawl all over them), so I'm wondering what kind of animals the eggplant had to ward off during it's evolution...

And then there are tomatoes!! The viney green stem is covered with a fine mist of a golden, brassy colored liquid that rubs off easily and quickly dries into a yellow powder on your fingers. What the heck is that? What evolutionary purpose has it served? We had to tear ourselves away to make the delivery....

This whole summer I've been too busy or rushed to look closer and I've missed a whole other world going on around me.

So here is Christopher Uhl (Author of Developing Ecological Conciousness) inspired activity: head outside, find a plant, and just sit with it. Cultivate curiosity by asking questions - what insect made that hole? Why? Where did it go? Why are these flowers this color? And so on. You'll probably find, like I did, that the intricacy of plants is surprising and something worth observing.
You can't tell from the picture, but this green Brandywine tomato is as big as my head! (Ok, my two fists...) Posted by Picasa
Our sign outside the Caf Posted by Picasa
Mmmm... Sorry Caf, we might have to just eat the watermelon! Posted by Picasa
Gloria, STOGROW farmer/apprentice with a box o' salad mix Posted by Picasa
Day and Dan, STOGROW farmers Posted by Picasa
Bon Appetit General Manager Hays Atkins inspects the lettuce mix... (He approves!)  Posted by Picasa
A beautiful Nadia eggplant Posted by Picasa
The jungle STOGROW has become! Posted by Picasa
The young garden in early June Posted by Picasa

The Complete STOGROW story, as of August 1st

The Story of STOGROW Farm, by Day Burtness
August 1, 2005

I spent the summer after my first year of college working at Foxtail Farm, a 64 acre organic farm that ran a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Leaving my hometown of Coon Rapids, a huge, sprawling suburb, to go work on the farm was the biggest leap from comfort to unknown that I had ever made in my life.
I was a farmer’s worst nightmare – I didn’t know what a tomato plant looked like, I’d couldn’t drive stick shift, I had no gardening knowledge, I’d never even mowed the lawn! Basically, I had no practical skills whatsoever. But I’d read my share of Wendell Berry and bought a pair of Carhardt overalls and decided to whip my impractical, suburban butt into rough and ready, hands-in-the-dirt shape.
The internship on the farm was the most life-changing experience I’ve ever had. Not only did I discover my love of farming and living simply, but I experienced independence, the feeling of competency, and the satisfaction of hard, honest work. I had a personal eating revolution out in the fields – knowing where my food came from and having been a part of its creation connected me to the land, to my sustenance, to the core of living the abundant life. I loved getting my hands dirty so much that I decided that many twenty-somethings at St. Olaf would benefit from growing food. Last August, sitting in the barn after a particularily satisfying day, I decided to start a CSA at St. Olaf.
I knew that a garden had been tried before out at the old SNAP Farm and that Olaf owned farmland, but other than that, I knew nothing. I emailed the Curator of Natural Lands, Gene Bakko, and the Director of Facilities, Pete Sandberg, about my idea to start a St. Olaf CSA. I got “no’s” from every direction. To Gene and Pete’s credit, they had solid reasons for doubting the possibility of a STOCSA – CSAs already existed in Northfield, the College didn’t have any tilling implements, the Co-op provided organic vegetables, it would need more student support than was available, and the Cannon River Watershed Project was already occupying the house that I wanted to use.
But I was too stubborn to take no for an answer and loved the vision of STOCSA too much give up completely. When I got to school in the fall, I decided to go ahead and be a little sneaky. I called the CRWP people and asked if I could use the half acre behind their house. They had no problems with that. I had land, theoretically, so I needed a plan. Dan Borek, a junior at Olaf whose family’s farmland borders the Olaf property that I had tentatively secured, had caught wind of my project and became my partner in scheming after a walk out to the site.
During a walk out to the land one day, we came up with the idea of selling to Bon Appetit. Daunted by the challenge of figuring out how to get members for a CSA, how to schedule plantings to ensure a sustained harvest, and doubting whether we had the land for it, wholesaling sounded like a better option. I set up a meeting with Hays Atkins, General Manager, and Peter Abramson, the Executive Chef for the Caf. My first real business meeting was intimidating, but by the end Hays had made every farmer’s dream offer – “Grow it and we’ll buy it – all of it.”
With the security of a guaranteed market, we figured that the College had to say yes to us! Without a complete lack of head shaking, all the right people gave the go ahead. The scheming then started in earnest.
The Student Government Association in the fall of 2004 had a budget surplus of $100,000 and was accepting proposals for projects and events on which they could spend the money. I showed up mudstained and sweaty after Frisbee practice to the proposal meeting in the Buntrock and told a filled Gold Ballroom that I wanted to start a farm. The idea sent a buzz through the room and many had questions about the idea. I originally asked for $5,000 and then $10,000 but eventually settled on $6,400. We were persistent and kept showing up at meetings until they voted on whether to give us the grant or not. Everyone in SGA who was in attendance voted for it except Dan Grupe who didn’t approve of how SGA bypassed the Business Committee to speed things up for us but “loved the idea of a St. Olaf farm.” We had our budget of $6,400!
Dan and I also worked on the name quite a bit. I wanted to connect it to the Norwegian roots of the College, so my ideas included Bringebaer Farm (raspberry in Norwegian in honor of the established raspberry patches) and Freya Farm (a Norwegian Goddess). In the middle of the brainstorming session, I got up to go to the bathroom and when I got back, Dan had it: STOGROW! St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works Farm. It was catchy and memorable, we both knew it would work. However, I still think of the farm as Bringebaer Farm at times, especially after a handful of blackcaps.
The winter was busy for us even though we couldn’t be working outside. There was a surprising amount of administrative detail to take care of, such as talking to Treasurer Alan Norton about insurance and tax issues, clearing up payment issues with Accounting, and running all over campus to get forms signed by our advisor Gene Bakko. While there are benefits to running a farm within an institution like St. Olaf, the amount of hassle that accompanies simply getting a refund for a business related purchase is necessary but ridiculous!
We wanted to hire someone for the summer, so right before Interim I quickly whipped up a Finstad Grant proposal after meeting with John Stull, the Entrepreneur in Residence at the CEL. On December 21st, 2004, I met with John, Bruce Daalgard, Andrea Becker, Sian Muir, Jim Farrell, and Gene Bakko to pitch STOGROW. I asked for $4,000 to hire two full time employees. It wasn’t an easy presentation, Bruce had some difficult questions about the feasibility of becoming self-sustaining, but in the end I must have answered sufficiently because they agreed to give me the grant. I left for J-term thinking I had secured enough for two full time employees for the summer.
As it turns out, the Finstad program only gave STOGROW $2,000, so I was able to hire Gloria Macwilliams-Brooks for the summer. Bruce Daalgard ended up giving Dan and me the Jioy Korda Schaeffer scholarship to help us paying for living expenses since we were not paying ourselves out of the budget until we were sure we would have enough for the 2006 season.
Up until the March of 2005, the whole project had been a largely abstract idea, but then we started purchasing equipment, planting our transplants in the school greenhouse, and picking out seeds. We purchased a used Troy-Bilt tiller from a horticulture professor in Rochester, MN for $595. Other pieces of equipment included an Earthway direct seeder, $600 worth of tools, and a greenhouse.
Dan and I are the type of people that just assume that everything will work out as planned. For the most part, this assumption is safe to make, but our experience of purchasing a greenhouse reminded us that things don’t always happen according to plan. We first ordered what we thought looked like a sturdy greenhouse from FarmTek, a company in Iowa. When it arrived, we began to realize that parts were not only warped and broken, but some vital sets of screws were completely missing, along with the AWOL instruction booklet. The combination of a poorly designed, rather expensive product and less than satisfactory customer service led us to returning the greenhouse and searching for a new one. Meanwhile, we were running out of space in the school greenhouse and desperately needed to give the Plant Physiology class their space back.
My supervisor in the History Department, home gardener extraordinaire and community networker Nancy Hollinger, mentioned that her friends made greenhouses in Castle Rock, a town not far from Northfield. She also offered to plant-sit our transplants in her model from Poly-Tex. In one generous offer, Nancy not only saved us from the wrath of John Giannini who teaches Plant Phys (we love ya John) but also introduced us to the best greenhouse company that we possibly could have worked with.
Poly-Tex not only provided us with a well designed greenhouse made with recycled steel, but in buying from them we were able to support a local business and reduce fossil fuel usage due to transportation. We set it up in an afternoon using only a pair of scissors and a ladder!
The cold and rainy weather during the spring was a blessing for our academic lives – if it had been perfect planting weather during the last part of May, Dan and Glo and I would have struggled to stay inside to finish our papers and study for our finals. It cleared up right after finals and after a couple of days to collect our minds after hours of tests, we got to work planting our veggies.
The season started off with long days of planting and the tiller breaking down. Thank goodness for Dan – since he’s a Northfield native, his connections around town found us a small engines enthusiast who fixed it for a reasonable price. However, we discovered that Troy-Bilt no longer makes parts for our tiller, so we’ve got to be careful!
Volunteers were crucial to getting all of our transplants in the ground. Martha (???), Curt Frank, Josie Glassberg, Willie Richards, Gene Bakko, Kyla Bauer, Emily Dahl, Deanna Steege, and Lisa Gulya provided the human-power to help us stay on schedule.
We made our first delivery of 15.5 pounds of lettuce mix to the Caf on June 29th, 2005. Hays Atkins and Peter Abrahamson, the head chef, have helped us at every step of the way, giving us fair pricing advice, being flexible with our sometimes sporadic deliveries, and even planning the menu around our produce. STOGROW produce definitely doesn’t make their jobs easier – our deliveries are small in comparison to their orders from California and we never know what we’ll have usually until we pick it – but they always meet our produce with excitement. Hays and Peter even made a sign to post throughout the Caf bringing our project to the attention of everyone who eats in the Caf.
There is a story that epitomizes the flexibility and humor with which they meet our new and sometimes experimental farm. After one of our first deliveries, Peter served STOGROW lettuce mix in the salad bar. The next time we saw him, he told us how a kid had reported an entire, live caterpillar in his lettuce to one of the sous chefs. Terrified, I expected Peter to sternly let us know that this was unacceptable, it didn’t make Bon Appetit look good, and we’d be done for if it happened again – something that might have happened with another purchaser. I shouldn’t have been worried. Peter just smiled and said, “Well, that’s organic for you! Good thing it wasn’t just half a caterpillar!”
Until the composter is up and running in the fall, we won’t be able to complete the cycle of nutrients from the cafeteria to our fields back to the cafeteria, but until then we’ve found another way to make use of the cafeteria waste. The fruit, grapes especially, comes packaged in perfectly good cardboard boxes. However, since it’s cheaper to just make more where the grapes are coming from, they usually just end up in the cardboard recycling bin. And while it’s better than the trash, reuse DOES come before recycle in the Environmentalist’s Catechism. They save as many boxes as we need and we use them for our delivery boxes over and over again. Also, other products come in 2.5 and 5 gallon buckets which are perfect for greenhouse tomatoes, rain catchers, seats, and harvest containers. And this waste-into-treasure mindset doesn’t just apply to the caf – alumni might recognize the wood from their old Ytterboe bunkbeds reincarnated as a STOGROW chicken coop, compost bin, and potting tables.

The summer is 2/3rds over and 2/3rds of the STOGROW crew, Gloria and me, will be leaving for Russia and India at the end of August. Even though Dan has much more STOGROWin’ in store for him in terms of this season, I’m starting to think of improvements to make for next summer, including upping the soil fertility by using compost, planning more field days for volunteers, planting more garlic, redesigning the layout of the STOGROW site to maximize sun exposure, researching different varieties of vegetables, learning some permaculture techniques, gaining some computer-aided accounting skills, and also beginning the task of hiring an apprentice for next season, someone who will hopefully take this project on for summers to come. We’re planting apple trees, we’re building infrastructure – we hope that STOGROW is part of Olaf for years to come.