We’re recapping our webinar!

On October 21st, 2019, we hosted a webinar with the farm operators at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine (SJCME): Farm to School: How Vertical Farming Fuels Sustainability, Education, and Employment. During our conversation, we discussed:

  • The unique way the farm arrived on campus

  • How they chose the perfect lettuce

  • How students found their callings through a part-time job at the farm

  • A very cool new certificate program called the Institute for Local Food System Innovation

And so much more! You can watch the entire webinar right here. 

Don’t have time for the 1-hour webinar? You’re in luck! We summarized the whole conversation into a comprehensive recap, a 10-minute read!


About Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

First things first–let’s meet our speakers:

  • Maya Atlas, the enterprise startup and operations manager at SJCME

  • Hilary Lamkin, the dining hall manager & farm operations manager at SJCME

  • Rebecca Barulli, a Senior majoring in Marine & Environmental Studies and minoring in Biology and Sustainability.

  • Billy Schwartz a Junior majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Business. 

Before diving into the details of the campus farm, we wanted to get a better understanding of SJCME as a whole. SJCME is a small, Catholic liberal arts college in rural Maine. The most popular majors are Nursing, Business, and Education and the majority of SJCME 1,000 students live on campus. The school’s dining halls base their menus on seasonal options and serve a large variety of gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, and vegetarian options. Pearson’s Cafe–the biggest dining hall on campus–serves over 9,000 meals a week.

The need for fresh and local food year-round is only one reason SJCME wanted to bring a farm to campus. Others include: offering meaningful opportunities for student employment, creating community-based and multi-disciplinary learning curriculums, and adding sustainability initiatives to campus.

As a rural college campus, we want to have job opportunities for students on campus. [The farm] provides enriching job opportunities to students without them having to get in a car and leave campus.
— Maya

Bringing a hydroponic farm to campus


So, how exactly did the Freight Farm come to the SJCME campus? 

It’s a unique and unconventional origin story! Maya explains, “Saint Joseph’s had been in conversations with Hannaford Supermarket for a long time. Hannaford wanted to add the Freight Farms model to their stores but decided it wasn’t the best model for them. In contrast, SJCME was a better fit! The school acquired the farm from Hannaford in May 2017, and the two organizations have continued to work together as partners.” 

Since that moment, Hilary has been working with the farm. As the manager of the school’s largest dining hall, she was asked to join the initiative from the start. After attending Farm Camp at Freight Farms in Boston, she set up the farm and has been overseeing its operations ever since. Maya joined the farm when she started one year ago. Her role at SJCME is to build a large scale hydroponic farm and food processing kitchen (more on this later). The hydroponic container farm already on campus was the perfect use case for creating a scaled program in the future.

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Farm operations

The farm is currently operated by Hilary, Maya and the student farmers. Nowadays Hilary has a background role, overseeing the farm on farmhand®, ordering supplies, and acting as a liaison between the farm and dining services. She has passed her day-to-day farm activities on to the students, which was always the ultimate goal.  

The farm grows Greenstar and Rouxai lettuce, arugula, kale, edible flowers, and experimental crops like carrots and radishes. The choice of crops is purposeful. The greens are all used at the salad bar at Pearson’s cafe for lunch and dinner service. Since launching the farm, Hilary and her student farmers have tested different lettuces to see what grows best. To date, Greenstar has been able to produce the highest volume, while the Rouxai’s beautiful red and green leaves help set the mix apart. 

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The chefs love it, they absolutely love it, and they love seeing it come through the door. Sometimes we have to buy lettuce from outside and it’s never as good as what we get from the Freight Farm.
— Hilary

Student farmers

Rebecca first heard about the farm while working at Pearson’s Cafe–she loved the idea and asked to get involved. Billy also heard about the farm through a friend who worked in Pearson’s Cafe, and later saw a job posting on the school website and decided to apply.

Today, Rebecca and Billy are two of four students who work at the farm part-time. For the students, a typical week at the farm is harvesting on Mondays & Tuesdays; transplanting on Tuesdays & Wednesdays; seeding and doing maintenance on Thursdays & Fridays. Rebecca–the head student farmer–all handles communications and schedules farm shifts based on the other students’ weekly availability.

Neither student had any experience with hydroponics before becoming student farmers. However, the Freight Farm job closely aligns with their interests and both students find great satisfaction in their work. 

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Rebecca

Working at the farm allowed Rebecca to see firsthand how hydroponic farming integrates with her Environmental Studies, Biology, and Sustainability curriculums. The job at the farm has even prompted her to consider a career in controlled environment agriculture when she graduates in December.

“I love being responsible for the lettuce we eat and being involved in something so sustainable and technologically-advanced. I’m amazed by how much lettuce the farm can produce in such a short growing cycle and how this hydroponic system uses so much less water.”

Billy

Billy sees his student job as an extension of a long-time interest in gardening and growing plants. While Billy doesn’t plan to pursue farming after graduation, he feels he has learned enough to run a hydroponic farm in the future if he wants to! For Billy, the most valuable part of working at the farm has been the real-world exposure to applied math and the power of data analysis.

“My favorite part of working at the farm is working with the data the farm provides to try and get an estimated weight of the harvest and improve it over time. I’m always surprised by how seemingly small changes can affect the crop.”


Curriculum integration

When it comes to integrating the farm into existing and new curriculums, Maya is the expert. Before she joined SJCME, the farm was primarily a tool for community-based learning (CBL), which involved students working with local partners to create social good in the community. 

As a flexible platform available right on campus, the Freight Farm integrates well with multiple CBL projects. For example, one project focused on bringing hydroponic container farming to Native American reservations in Maine. Students from a variety of majors collaborated to create learning pathways for starting a Freight Farm. Education majors developed a curriculum for teaching reservation residents how to operate the farm; Biology majors creating manuals and teaching guides explaining the science behind growing healthy plants; Communications majors converted the curriculum into a digital resource. All of this work used the SJCME Freight Farms as a test case.

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Having a Freight Farm on campus has allowed us to give our students practical ways to apply their majors towards a project they can see on campus.
— Maya

Maya’s main charge is to help SJCME create new programs to expand their reach to new kinds of students. Her work involves three new ‘institutes’, created to provide students with practical learning opportunities in growing industries. They are the Institute for Integrative Aging, the Institute for Sustainable Hospitality, and the Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation. All three programs are for credit-acquiring, tuition-paying students as well as what Maya calls  “life-long learners”–adults that seek out education in emerging fields to change or improve their career prospects. 

The Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation (ILFSI) uses learnings from the campus Freight Farm as its basis. The final vision for ILFSI is a program with three parts: a large hydroponic farm, a commercial processing kitchen, and a stone barn for events, weddings, and agro-tourism. All three represent fast-growing agricultural industries that will (hopefully) entice young people to stay in Maine by helping locals find jobs with livable wages or start profitable new businesses. 

What’s important is not just developing these things in a vacuum, but understanding how having a hydroponic farm on campus can help all of our students.
— Maya

The campus farm serves as a learning lab for building this larger program. Maya and her team are using the farm as a way to test the program ahead of scaling. The thinking is, “If we can train five students to operate the system completely, we can teach any number of students”. Today, the student-run hydroponic farm is illuminating where the school is succeeding and where there are still gaps. 

Along with program testing in the farm, Maya is sourcing support from surrounding businesses on the kinds of products and workforce that are most in-demand. This is critical: SJCME wants to create a program that actively reflects what the industry is looking for (crop types, skill sets, etc.).


Advice

When we got to the topic of advice, the answer was unanimous: educate, educate, EDUCATE. Promoting the farm from the very beginning is important to raise awareness and get students involved. 

Maya shares her own experience: “People don’t really understand the impact of how awesome this is until they’re in a farm. I did not live in Maine before I moved here, and harvesting flowers in February in a t-shirt is a remarkable experience...From an admissions standpoint, this needs to be shouted from the rooftops.”

Hilary, Maya, and Rebecca recommend:

  • Adding the farm to the campus tour for new and prospective students.

  • Featuring the prominently farm on the school’s website. 

  • Staying consistent with signage in the dining halls.


 

Audience Q&A

What is the relationship with Hannaford like? What works, what doesn’t?

Maya: The relationship is evolving. Currently, it’s hands-off. Hannaford had a resource that wasn’t working for them and they chose SJCME as a way to off-load the farm so it could be used to its full potential. In the future, Hannafords would love to work with us, as soon as we grow enough to sell to them –currently, we can’t even keep up with demand on campus! Hannaford is an important partner to help us understand what the market needs and where there is saturation. We want them to tell us where their product holes are and for us to be able to fill them.

How do you maintain a food-safe environment in the farm?

Rebecca: Everyone has their own farm shoes, and wears lab coats and hairnets. We sanitize the floor whenever we come in and out and clean the counters and towers after harvesting and transplanting.

How do students hand off their farm responsibilities when they graduate?

Hilary: We try to hire freshmen so they can be with the farm for the longest amount of time when they take over from graduating seniors. We’re also actively recruiting throughout the year–posting the job online, promoting during student tours, and having professors plug it during classes.

What has been the response from local traditional farmers to your campus hydroponic farm?

Maya: Education is really important. If people think we’re just opening a hydroponic farm on campus, then there is this fear of a large institution coming into the market. We want to make sure farmers understand that we’re going to grow non-seasonal options to avoid competing with our neighbors. Plus, farmers can use the processing kitchen to create value-adding products for anything they can’t sell, so it's extending their season as well.

Do you plan on marketing products off-campus in the near future?

Maya: We have a goal to sell edible flowers wholesale to two distributors by mid-Spring 2020. This will help us develop the ILFSI program; by forcing us to figure out how to create a product guide, set up pricing, create invoices and purchase orders, and more, before scaling.

 

Want to hear more from the farmers at Saint Joseph’s College? Check out the entire webinar or our farmer spotlight blog for more insight into the school’s farming operations.

Feeling inspired to start your own farming program?

Download our Campus Booklet

Explore how the Freight Farms Greenery™ can bring fresh, local, and sustainable on-site food production directly to your school. Explore our menu of purchasing and support options to ensure you’re getting the exact school program you need.


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