From seeds to harvest: a look inside the farm on The Farm

March 13, 2018, 8:00 p.m.

On a rainy Thursday morning, students on bikes whiz past each other on the way to 9:30 lectures – one hand clutching a hood to stay dry, the other steering, trying not to hydroplane. Just a mile away from the hustle and bustle of Main Quad, however, lies a six-acre campus haven absent of the noise that clouds everyday life at Stanford: the Farm’s very own O’Donohue Family Educational Farm.

That rainy morning, local volunteer Razia Mianoor, coterm Lina Khoeur ’17 M.S. ’18, farm production coordinator Allison Bauer and I stand in the barn thinning lettuce sprouts, sipping hot tea together. There is simply something about trekking through the mud, taking shelter in a greenhouse and picking gently through the tender leaves. Khoeur tells me that working at the farm helps her “put things in perspective.” I’ll believe it. Life slows down when you start the day by engaging with the Earth and with people who care about it, she says. It is an exercise in patience, in reflection.

The story of the O’Donohue Educational Farm – established in 2014 by the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences (SEES) – mirrors that of the plants that grow on its grounds: It is a narrative of people from all walks of life coming together to create a space that will enrich a community.

Roots: the farm’s history

If there is someone who knows just how much is packed into the farm’s brief history, it’s Farm Director Patrick Archie.

“This [farm] had been a dream, and my job was to help realize that dream,” Archie said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last, gosh, six-and-a-half years now.”

In his first three years on the job, Archie helped campus planners answer the logistical questions of having an educational farm – where on campus it could go, how big it could be and what resources were necessary to assist its function. When the SEES officially opened the farm’s doors, he also played a major role in ensuring the farm’s operational activity.

Although she only started working at Stanford two years ago, Liz Carlisle, field instructor and SEES lecturer, says she has been involved with the farm since day one. Since the beginning, she has been working alongside her “sweetheart” Archie, her partner with whom she shares a “totally romantic, idyllic” life working and teaching on the farm.

“An educational farm is such a major undertaking that I think it’s really nice to have a collaborator who understands that it’s not just a nine-to-five job. There is a commitment beyond that,” Carlisle said. “It’s wonderful to have a kindred spirit in that work.”

Carlisle describes the farm as a model for small-scale, sustainable, organic agriculture: She and the farm staff select crops that build natural soil fertility and break up pest and disease cycles, undermining the need for commercial fertilizers or chemicals.

Unlike the huge monocrop farms of corn or wheat that often come to mind, the O’Donohue Farm boasts dozens of plant varieties year-round. After wrapping up its winter harvest of kale, chard, cabbage, leeks, onions and garlic, the farm has been gearing up to plant its warm-season crops like peppers, eggplants and tomatoes. The farm also grows flowers year-round to attract pollinators and even raises chickens — a “must-see” for visitors, Carlisle says.

Many of the crops harvested from the farm end up right on our plates. Through a partnership with Residential and Dining Enterprises, the farm’s fresh produce features in campus dining halls, Stanford Catering and Munger Market. The farm even sells its produce — fresh corn, flour and more — to Flea Street Cafe, a restaurant in neighboring Menlo Park.

Carlisle and Archie are still adding more to the farm every day. Just a few weeks ago, the two were joined by students from Stanford and DeAnza Community College, local volunteers and the Santa Cruz-based organization Orchard Keepers in planting fruit trees throughout the farm grounds. The fruit varieties now found on the farm cannot be counted on both hands: plums, apricots, pluots, figs, pears, apples, peaches, nectarines, pomegranates, persimmons and a variety of citrons.

“Before this was Silicon Valley, they called it the ‘Valley of Heart’s Delight,’” Archie notes. “It was all orchards from here to south San Jose. So this little orchard is our homage to that.”

As the trees grow slowly but surely over the years, they will provide shade for crops planted beneath them, fruits for the community to enjoy and a wealth of new memories for those who come to help the farm keep growing.

“[I was] just imagining someone picking that perfectly ripe, sweet plum off of that tree as we’re digging these holes,” Carlisle recalled. She cited the day they planted the fruit trees as one of her favorite memories on the farm.

“It’s feeling that sense of a long-term investment in something that people will always enjoy,” Carlisle said.

Educational mission

As its name suggests, the O’Donohue Family Educational Farm also has a mission to educate its visitors and enrich the Stanford academic experience.

“I love the idea that students understand where their food comes from, how it’s grown, what kind of resources it takes, the value of it,” says Professor Jeffrey Koseff M.S ’78 Ph.D. ’73, founding co-director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and member of the farm’s advisory board.

Koseff, who co-teaches THINK 40: “Sustainability Challenges and Transitions” — an introductory Thinking Matters course targeted at freshmen with a variety of academic interests and just beginning their academic journeys at Stanford — describes class visits to the farm as integral to learning first-hand about class themes like food, energy and water.

“Having the farm as a centerpiece to all of it helps bring a lot of it to life in a more real way,” Koseff says. As both Koseff and Carlisle note, field trips to the farm enhance learning for a variety of classes — not just the expected ones like THINK 40.

“We get courses from all over campus,” said Carlisle, who designs and leads the farm field trips. “We’ve had art professors bring their Drawing 1 class, we’ve had [Science, Technology and Society 200A] come and talk about food systems in society.” Carlisle said that this quarter, students enrolled in the BIO30: “Ecology for Everyone” course came to the farm to do a composting workshop with their own food scraps. 

Engineering students from the “Design for Extreme Affordability” class also use the farm as a space to take their ideas from blueprint to reality. According to program coordinator Jessica Gonzales, students have prototyped a wide range of projects, from affordable chicken coops to be used in Tanzania to wireless water sensors to help drought-conscious farmers save water.

Various classes are taught on-site at the farm, such as Archie’s EARTHSYS 180: “Principles and Practices of Sustainable Agriculture” and Carlisle’s EARTHSYS 136: “The Ethics of Stewardship.” Riya Mehta ’18, an Earth Systems student advisor, said that Archie’s class made her “fall in love with the farm.”

“I just love that [these classes] take place at the farm. They get students excited about and engaged in the actual agriculture,” Mehta said. “I really do consider it just as important as all the classes I’ve taken in classrooms, maybe even more important.”

Gonzales echoed Mehta’s sentiment. “You can’t get this experience in a lab. You can’t get it in a classroom. It’s unique,” she said. “I think these are the kinds of experiences that people hold onto and remember.”

The heart of a community

When asked about their vision for the future of the farm, Archie, Carlisle, Koseff, Mehta and Gonzales all gave more or less the same answer: They hope that Stanford students, as well as the surrounding communities, think of the farm as a welcoming space to make connections and nurture community.

Mehta, founder and co-president of the student group Stanford Farmers, helps organize students to come to open volunteer hours on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, as well lead events such as the fall Harvest Festival. She has even hosted yoga in front of the newly constructed Terry Huffington Barn overlooking the lush, green fields. For Mehta, volunteering on the farm provides an avenue to connect with people she would have otherwise never meet — from families with ever-curious children to students from nearby colleges.

“When you are working side by side with someone, it doesn’t really matter if you come from really different backgrounds or study completely different things,” Mehta remarked. “You’re engaged in the same task.”

Now that construction on the farm has neared completion, Gonzales said she is working toward increasing community outreach. Last summer, the farm sponsored a program for 20 high school students — half from Asia, half from the Bay Area — to learn about sustainability through the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. In the spring, Archie will teach a practicum for students to lead a fifth-grade field trip program for students from lower-income schools. Stanford students will learn to make different topics — from entomology to exploring farm systems and soil science — accessible to the fifth graders.

Gonzales expressed her hope that the farm will continue to grow into an inviting place that makes people want to come out to learn and connect.

“I think it’s really valuable to have a safe space where you’re encouraged to learn and try things, whether it’s trying an organic chicken egg or learning how to use a saw for the first time,” Gonzales said, encouraging any and all to come see for themselves what the farm has to offer. “Smell things, touch things, taste things — this is your farm.”

Just years ago, the multi-acre plot consisted of an oak tree savannah overgrown with weeds and grass. Now in its fourth growing season, the farm serves the Stanford population as well as surrounding communities, welcoming all to partake in the agricultural process from seeding to harvest.

The dream of having a campus farm — voiced for decades by students and faculty alike — was made possible by Laura and Kevin O’Donohue MBA ’87, who met at Stanford over two decades ago. Using the O’Donohues’ contribution, the University has worked to transform the O’Donohue Educational Farm from an empty grove into a fully-functional farm facility.

“We’ve been really fortunate that the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences really saw the value of an educational farm as a living laboratory … and really went for it,” said Carlisle.

Contact Melissa Santos at melissasantos ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Melissa Santos is a sophomore from Los Angeles studying comparative literature. She is the Desk Editor for the Daily's campus life beat and chair of the Community Life and Inclusion Program. Ask Melissa about her love for teaching or her Golden Girls obsession at melissasantos ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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