Not sure? Then you might not have heard of the Cal Poly Organic Farm: an on-campus, student-run farm that produces an array of organic vegetables including kale, carrots, squash, peppers, jumbo flat Italian beans, onion, cilantro, potato, tomatillo collard greens and cabbage.
In addition to producing an assortment of fresh vegetables, the Cal Poly Organic Farm operates differently then an average farm in a few ways.
First, the Cal Poly Organic Farm is “certified organic” by California Certified Organic Farmers. Being certified means that an inspector has verified that the farm’s organic system plan (a detailed description of the practices and procedures used by an operation to produce organic goods) accurately depicts the farm’s practices and procedures, according to the California Certified Organic Farmers Web site.
Second, the Cal Poly Organic Farm’s motivation is not centered around money. Naturally, money is necessary to keep the farm operating, but it is not the main incentive driving student employees and volunteers.
“Our mission is to educate students about sustainable farming,” said manager Cindy Douglas. “It’s not about selling vegetables.”
There are 40 Cal Poly students, 50 percent of whom are agriculture students, who work on the farm for money, credit, or food and do all of the farm work and marketing, Douglas said.
“I think it’s really cool because it’s all run by students who are really into it,” said civil engineering junior Kaitlyn Beesley-Campos.
The concept of running a farm based on student participation developed in the mid-1980s.
Operated without any faculty advisers, the farm was somewhat experimental in its initial years. Available pieces of land were used to plant crops and random projects were constantly being developed. For example a methane digester which converts goat manure into methane gas (which can be used as energy) by the use of an anaerobic (no oxygen) chamber, Douglas said.
In 1989, Cal Poly agriculture student Hunter Francis developed a thesis aiming to incorporate sustainable agriculture into the curriculum by creating a class called Organic Agriculture (AG 315). The farm came to be known as the Student Experimental Farm (SEF), allowing students to get hands-on experience in their field of agricultural study and receive school credit for working on the farm.
“It’s fun to work with students to see the next generation of people that will be farming in a sustainable way,” Douglas said.
The next big change came in 2000. Francis and fellow Cal Poly agriculture student Terry Hooker formed the Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium (SARC). SARC established a foundation at Cal Poly to encourage sustainable agricultural practices and make a profit.
To financially support their project, Hooker created the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program the same year. Students and community members pay a weekly fee in exchange for a colorful box full of fresh vegetables produced on the farm. Members pick up their box at the farm or have it delivered for an additional cost.
The CSA program began with 25 members. Today it has about 300 members, according to the Cal Poly Organic Farm Web site.
Community members pay $318 for a large box and $240 for a small box, with a 12-week minimum requirement. Students can buy a discounted large box for $306 or a small box for $228.
“It’s a good way to provide healthy foods to students. I just think that more people need to know about it,” Beesley-Campos said.
While many Cal Poly students might not know of the farm, many underprivileged people in the community are very familiar with it.
This leads to the last reason why the Cal Poly Organic Farm is different from your average farm.
The Cal Poly Organic Farm donates about $3,000 worth of vegetables a year to local homeless shelters and food banks, including the Food Bank in Paso Robles, the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter in San Luis Obispo, and Backyard Harvest in Paso Robles, Douglas said.
“It’s really just beginning, but we’re hoping to develop a permanent relationship with the farm,” said Carl Hanson, executive director of the Food Bank in Paso Robles. “It’s local, provides people with healthy produce, saves us having to pay freight to get food shipped in, and it puts sustainable farming to work.”
Although the Food Bank is in the initial stages of establishing a lasting connection with the Cal Poly Organic Farm, the farm has maintained a long-term relationship with the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, a shelter in San Luis Obispo that has been providing meals to over 100 homeless people every night for over 20 years, said shelter manager Shawn Ison.
“I think it’s great that they (Cal Poly Organic Farm) set up a program that has enabled members of the community to help the homeless by creating a way for people to donate to a good cause. Every little bit helps,” said Amalia Mahana, a cook at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter.
The Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter has been receiving produce from the Cal Poly Organic Farm for about a year, picking up a box of vegetables monthly, depending on what is seasonally available and needed for meals.
“We have received beautiful tomatoes, beautiful peppers, lettuce, and squash. All the vegetables were wonderful quality, especially the tomatoes and peppers. They were exquisite,” Mahana said.
While the cooks might appreciate a superb pepper, the homeless people that frequent the shelter are learning to appreciate the benefits of organic produce.
“I think it helps people to become more aware of organic food. I always tell the people where their food is coming from and I think they are surprised to learn that it is organic. They’ll say, ‘Oh, this is organic? But it’s so beautiful,’” Mahana said.
The contribution of organic produce is also appreciated by Backyard Harvest, an all-volunteer organization, which provides 1,000 families a week with fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the Backyard Harvest Web site.
The concept of Backyard Harvest stemmed from the idea that the neediest people in the community should not be receiving the lowest quality of food. While many food banks provide canned and packaged goods to those in need, Backyard Harvest strives to provide fresh, healthy options by collecting extra produce from dozens of small neighborhood gardens.
The Cal Poly Farm has donated to Backyard Harvest many times within the past couple of years. The farm generally donates shares that are not picked up by their members and excess from the farm, said Amy White, the project coordinator of the Backyard Harvest chapter in Paso Robles.
“We love the organic farm, they have been a great support of our cause,” White said.
The Cal Poly Organic Farm is always looking for more support as well.
“We encourage anyone who is interested to come on out,”
To learn more about the farm, how you can get involved, or to sign up for the CSA program, visit the Cal Poly Organic Farm’s Web site at www.calpolyorgfarm.com. The farm is located off Mount Bishop Road, about a half mile past the rodeo unit and is open to the public Mondays and Thursdays between 3p.m. and 6p.m.