6 ways to make the most of an on-site farm

on-site farming

On-campus farms can help engage and educate diners young and old; however, they are not without pitfalls. Here are five tips from farm-savvy operators to ensure your farm or garden grows to its highest potential.

1. Create an open channel of communication

communication

At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, dining staff say that keeping open communication between the dining team and student farmers makes the process of transporting produce from the farm to the dining halls more efficient. “Be flexible with orders and products,” says Executive Chef Frank Turchan. “Don't be afraid to ask for more and say no if you can't do it.” 

2. Get a close-up look

close-up

It was really helpful for members of the University of Michigan dining team to visit the farm so they could get a firsthand look at how it operated, says Alex Bryan, sustainable food program manager. "Having the chefs and staff visit the farm to see the food production and build relationships with the student farmers is a huge plus. The relationship-building keeps the partnership strong and allows us to head off any issues before they arise."

3. Pollinate things yourself

tomato plant

Operators running indoor farms can make sure their plants flourish by taking on the role of pollinating the plants themselves. “Tomatoes and peppers are easy to pollinate yourself by gently shaking the stem,” says Janice Watt, foodservice director for Foxborough Public Schools in Foxborough, Mass. Watt says she also aims to plant self-pollinating items such as English cucumbers. 

4. Use resident-grown produce

local garden

At The Mather, a senior living community in Evanston, Ill., residents can sign up to take care of their own small garden. Executive Chef Jeff Muldrow welcomes residents to give him produce from their gardens for inclusion in dishes, and will note on the menu if their produce is used.

5. Be mindful of the season

lettuce

Swampscott Public Schools’ greenhouse has switched from producing tomatoes and squash, which ripened before school started, to produce that could be harvested during the school year, such as lettuce. “I suggest growing what your school can use when open,” Maureen Kellett, foodservice director for the Swampscott, Mass., district, says. “Don't grow vegetables that peak in July if your school is not open until September.”

6. Make sure plants are seen but not touched

hydroponic garden

When working with younger consumers, Watt recommends strategically placing gardens so that students can watch the plants grow, but will not be tempted to mess with them.

At one of Swampscott’s elementary schools, the hydroponic garden is on display through a window. “Students can look in as they walk down the hallway,” she says. “Some even stop to count how many cucumbers they see.”

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