|Governor Pat Quinn speaks at the symposium|
This past Friday I had the neat opportunity to attend the Governor’s Illinois Universities Sustainability Symposium at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Symposium attendees included representatives from each of the state-funded universities in Illinois as well as several community colleges. There were several distinguished speakers including our Governor Pat Quinn, the Chancellor and President of UI, Leith Sharp, director of the Illinois Green Economy Network, and Dr. Barbara Minsker, Associate Provost Fellow and Scholar.
Although the talks were interesting, the highlight of my day was the visit to the UI Student Farm. The Student Farm is similar to SIUC’s organic garden, serving as a production farm, Illinois Extension outreach project, and produce distributor to the dining halls at UI. The farm is managed by UI alumnus Zach Grant whose research focus is extended season vegetable production. His goal as a manager is 48-50 weeks of vegetable production. Recently, the Student Farm started a farm-stand on the UI campus to raise awareness and gain additional revenue. Grant hopes that eventually the farm could also serve as a CSA to 20-30 grad students and faculty, providing “diversified, seasonal produce weekly.”
Although not large, the production capacity of the Student Farm was very impressive. In its four months of production in 2009, the farm produced 19,000 pounds of vegetables. Grant uses hoop houses (an un-heated green-house) to produce during the winter months.
Grant’s wish-list for the UI farm is extensive. He spoke to us of how he was open to just about any sustainable developments that could be implemented on the farm, including increased volunteers, being able to be financially independent, closed-loop compost systems, etc. “It’s really strange to me that this University hasn’t advanced further in composting,” Grant says after telling us that the Student Farm currently buys its compost from the city of Urbana, 55,000 pounds in 2009.
The issues with funding and lack of sustainability support that the UI Student Farm faces echoed the same woes I’ve heard at SIU. Funding across the state is tight and changes in curriculum regarding sustainability happens slowly. A common theme repeated at the Sustainability Symposium was that in order to change our curriculums, built environments, food processes or other sustainability initiatives, is that we must change our culture and way of thinking. “Our state and country [government] just isn’t conducive to real, slow, natural food,” Grant says, looking around at the surrounding soy-bean fields. Turning back to our touring group he says, “This is the flagship University of Illinois, but as you can see,” he continues, gesturing to the land around him, “this landscape is still devoted mostly to corn and soybeans.”
Despite his management wish-list and acknowledgment of challenges, Grant knows full well the positives of the farm, and holds great pride in his production. What’s one of the things Grant and the volunteers at the Student Farm do really well? Grow tomatoes.
Despite the intense heat this summer, Grant has been really happy with his tomato crop. Grant is hoping to deliver 3-4,000 pounds of tomatoes to the UI dining halls to enjoy by the end of September. Tomatoes, like salad greens, are in heavy demand in the dining halls. “They go through tomatoes like gang-busters!” Grant claims. He then proceeds to offer us some cherry tomatoes from the vine.