There is no running water and no electricity at the new Kennedy farm at Richard Stockton College.
But students there are determined to operate a successful, albeit small, farm in an energy-efficient and sustainable manner.
Begun last year, students so far have tilled a half-acre site, put up a mesh fence to keep out the persistent deer, cut a trench to keep out moles and woodchucks, and built a drip water system with a solar-powered pump to collect rainwater for irrigation.
They grew a small crop of winter greens last fall, and have begun planting garlic, peas, potatoes, kale, tomatoes and carrots, all started from seeds sprouted in the Stockton greenhouse.
Seven beehives were recently added and a group of students trained as beekeepers.
Associate professor of sustainability Patrick Hossay serves as adviser for the farm and said he wants his role to remain largely advisory.
“I keep reminding myself the point is not really to grow crops, it’s to educate students,” he said, and that will include trying new things and learning from mistakes. But he said he is thrilled with increasing student interest in fresh food and how it is grown.
Kelsey Brennan, 21, of Howell, Monmouth County, a sustainability studies major, had never built anything in her life when she agreed to take on the solar-powered irrigation system project last year.
“It was me and a slew of volunteers, and it took pretty much the whole semester,” she said. “But when we got the solar working, it was so exciting. It’s so cool that we only use rainwater.”
Hossay also serves as adviser to the student SAVE (Stockton Action Volunteers for the Environment) club on campus, and he admits he was a bit skeptical when students first approached him with the idea for a farm a few years ago. He told them to first start a garden, which they did very successfully, so he arranged to get some land off Vera King Farris Drive to start a very small farm, that could be slowly expanded if successful.
The plot was named Kennedy Farm after the family that owned a pig farm on the the site before it became part of Stockton.
Hossay said a major challenge is maintaining the farm over the summer when most students are not around. Student Caitlin Clarke has been hired as the farm manager, Brennan is the only paid employee, and five student interns will work along with volunteers who now come out twice a week.
Clarke, 26, is a Barnegat native with a degree in Japanese who is getting a second degree in environmental studies at Stockton. She has some experience growing heirloom vegetables but admits operating the farm has its challenges.
“I don’t always know what I’m doing, but I do always have an idea,” she said, smiling. They are a bit late getting some seeds in the ground because they wanted only organic seeds, and the purchasing process had to be approved through Stockton. She credits SAVE club President Stan Baguchinsky with being the driving force behind getting the farm approved.
“He helped build the fence last summer,” she said.
Keeping volunteers interested is another challenge, especially as students graduate. Clarke, who will graduate in December, said she thinks a lot about how to keep the transition process moving smoothly over the years. She is developing a manual that can be handed down to new managers and volunteers.
“I want this to have staying power,” she said.
Many student volunteers have little or no farming experience. Theodore Diehl, 20, of the Newport section of rural Downe Township in Cumberland County, said he’s helped out with some salt hay farming, but that’s it.
“I just keep volunteering,” he said as he and Clarke set up a tiller to create a space for the Water Watch club to grow native plants.
Tiara Campbel, of the Port Norris section of Commercial Township, Cumberland County, said her family has always had a garden, but her main job is picking and cleaning and her dad handles the growing. She is interested in urban farming and community-supported agriculture and would like to build that into a career.
“I see farming reviving in urban areas,” she said.
That excites Hossay, who said he is teaching more students interested in food issues. About 60 students have volunteered on the farm so far, and tours were included in the college’s Earth Day celebrations.
“Even a few years ago, no one wanted to be a farmer,” Hossay said. “Now they are motivated by issues of food and hunger.”
Clarke said the summer interns are coming from different majors, including public health and biology, and can bring different ideas to the farm even if they have little farming experience.
“One said to me she’s never held a shovel,” Clarke said. “But she’s so enthusiastic.”
Brennan said the farm has been a great way to meet new people and share the experience, especially after a long day in class.
“It’s very therapeutic to come out here,” she said..
Hossay said the challenges facing the students on their small farm are similar to those faced in areas where farming is difficult, so learning new ways to get water and fertilize are useful skills.
“We are training people how to be more aware of food and how it is produced, even if they don’t become farmers,” Hossay said.
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