A day at the farm: From research opportunities to food production, CWRU farm offers several resources

Members of the University Farm staff and some researchers working at the farmThe herb garden that launched the Farm Food ProgramA variety of plants grow in the Debra Ann November Research GreenhousePlants grow in the Debra Ann November Research GreenhouseEmily Pek holds basket of coffee beans harvested from the coffee tree.Crops grow in area beside the Debra Ann November Research GreenhouseEdible flowers grow just outside the Debra Ann November Research GreenhouseCrops grow in one of the high tunnelsTomatoes grow in one of the high tunnelsCrops grow in the Valley Ridge Farm gardensMushrooms growing in bags prepared at the farmThe A.I. Root Farm Apiary, where several honeybee hives are locatedTwo of the farm's compost pilesRyan Bennett works on the compost piles at the farmA pond on the propertyA student works on a ceramics piece during a class at the farm.Ceramics pieces completed by students at the farmThe Dairy Barn (Silo Theater) on the Valley Ridge Farm property

Shane Brown, maintenance group leader at the Case Western Reserve University farm, considers the Squire Valleevue and Valley Ridge Farms grounds in nearby Hunting Valley “the university’s best-kept secret.”

But the farm—just 10 miles from campus—isn’t intended to be a secret, and the staff doesn’t want to keep it that way.

The nine full-time staff members want the campus and Greater Cleveland community to know every aspect of what happens at the farm, from research and food production to education and recreation.

We recently spent a day at the farm to meet with the staff members, tour the landscape and learn about the opportunities it affords the community.

Research opportunities

In fitting with the university’s mission, research is a major component of the farm’s operations. The staff works with both faculty and student researchers to provide resources and space to conduct research projects that don’t lend themselves to a typical lab space.

On one day in June, several researchers were on site, conducting research on different topics, including plant ecology.

“We have this fantastic biological station where students can work with mayflies, frogs, ants, plants, worms, reptiles—you name it,” Ana Locci, director of the farm, said.

The farm staff helps researchers keep their projects in motion, whether it’s posting signs and setting fences or providing upkeep for the area.

Those conducting work at the farm during our visit expressed their gratitude for the staff, explaining the employees’ significance on their projects.

Kacey Dananay, a recent graduate with a PhD in biology who worked in Michael Benard’s lab, shared that, without the physical and organizational help afforded to her by the University Farm, her research wouldn’t be possible.

By the numbers

Acres:
400
Full-time staff members:
Nine
CWRU for-credit courses taught at the farm:
15 in 2017
Siegal Lifelong Learning courses offered at the farm:
seven in 2017
Researchers (many with labs on-site) conducting studies at the farm:
10 faculty and 10 students/postdocs
Food produced at the farm in 2017:
11,800 lbs.
Length of interpretive trail open to the public:
2.08
Species that members of the community identified through the iNaturalist app:
730 and counting
Riders transported between main campus and the farm by the shuttle during the 2016-17 academic year:
3,433
Campus greens diverted to the farm’s compost piles:
140,000 lbs.
Student visits from local schools during 2016-17 academic year:
300

Benard, an associate professor of biology who conducts research and teaches courses at the farm, echoed that sentiment.

“When you come out and do research, it feels like you’re part of a big team, because people are interested in what you’re doing and they’re able to help out,” he said. “A lot of the stuff that we do, we wouldn’t be able to do without the help of the farm staff—or at least, it would take us a lot longer to get it done.”

Benard’s lab explores how organisms—amphibians, in particular—respond to changes to their environment, especially those that might directly harm humans.

“For big, complex biological problems, there are certain things you can figure out in the laboratory, but when you want to figure out what’s actually happening in nature—and by nature, that can also include more urbanized settings—you need to step outside the laboratory and do your experiments on a realistic scale,” he said.

The University Farm allows he and his team to do just that.

Ongoing educational offerings

The University Farm offers an ideal atmosphere to teach science-related courses on everything from ecology to entomology (the study of insects).

“The field sites at the farm are also a unique resource for teaching. For example, the farm has an old growth beech-maple hardwood forest that is a high-quality habitat. Our Principles in Ecology lab (BIOL351L) has taken advantage of the farm’s forest for many years with a long-term monitoring plot,” Jean Burns, associate professor of biology, said. “This allows us to ask ecological questions such as: How are changing environmental conditions influencing forest community composition?”

But that’s only the beginning. The farm is home to courses in nutrition, ceramics and photography, among others, as well as the host of immersion programs for CWRU students learning other languages.

And it’s not only undergraduates and graduate students learning at the farm.

The farm administration offers continuing education classes in beekeeping, mushroom growing and foraging, building off the staff’s strong knowledge in those topics, while the Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program offers several courses on such topics as poetry, painting and walking through nature.

The University Farm also is home to the Dorothy Ebersbach Academic Center for Flight Nursing summer camp each year, where health care professionals from CWRU and beyond learn emergency response. In addition, the farm staff hosts several local schoolchildren for programs throughout the year, whether it’s a one-day field trip or weekly visits throughout the school year.

Bringing fresh produce to the community

In connecting the Case Western Reserve’s main campus with the farm, the opportunities go well beyond education and research.

Launched in 2010 as a relatively small herb garden, the Farm Food Program has become a fundamental part of the farm’s operations, with four full-time staff members, led by program coordinator Ryan Bennett, managing all growing areas through the program.

During the 2017 growing season, the Farm Food Program produced 11,800 lbs. of fresh food, with over 92,000 lbs. grown since the program’s inception in 2010.

About half of the food produced at the farm is taken to the university’s main campus, where it is served at Bon Appetit Management Co. dining facilities. The farm also sells its products to about eight local restaurants, and at the University Farm market stand, which is offered biweekly on Saturdays through October.

The farm grows about 40 different products—including basil, tomatoes, kale, edible flowers, Swiss chard and more—in the Debra Ann November Research Greenhouse (managed by Emily Pek), two high tunnels (managed by Matthew Burtonshaw) and the Valley Ridge Farm garden (managed by Alan Alldridge). Plus, the staff also forages for nuts, herbs and mushrooms.

The team is constantly monitoring the plants’ growth, whether in the greenhouse, garden or high tunnels. Over the winter, they must meticulously plan all of the details of what they will grow—and how. And, of course, with the unpredictable weather and the sometimes-fickle nature of growing, they regularly need to make adjustments.

The team also is committed to research—fitting for a university farm.

While the Farm Food Program’s team has certain amounts and types of crops they must produce, they also get to experiment a bit, whether that’s growing a coffee tree or trying out a new growing technique such as hydroponics.

The program also is focused on yet another on-campus initiative: sustainability.

For example, since July 2017, through the farm’s compost program with assistance from food waste recycling company Rust Belt Riders, the farm has transported over 140,000 lbs. of greens from campus to the farm for composting and eventual use on the gardens.

Connecting with nature

Even if you don’t take a class there or use the space for research, there still are plenty of ways to engage with the farm.

A 2.08-mile interpretive trail winds through the farm property with 32 marked stations for visitors to see the vegetation and features (download a trail guide and track what you see in iNaturalist, a biodiversity app). And those who visit in the winter even can use snowshoes on the trails (available for rent at the farm administrative offices).

Hosting an event at the farm

University community members and nonprofit organizations can rent farm facilities, including picnic areas and buildings. Some spaces also are available for private social events.

Learn more about the facility rental at students.case.edu/farm/facilities/.

On weekends when he’s not there for research, Benard occasionally brings his wife and two children out to the farm to hike the trails.

“I don’t have to come out with my waders and research gear—I can come out with the family,” he said.

Each year, the Benard family also looks forward to the Farm Harvest Festival, an annual event hosted by the Student Sustainability Council featuring activities such as hayrides, a grass maze, hiking tours and more. This year’s event will be held Sept. 22 from 1to 6 p.m.

No matter the time of year, or the reason for a visit, Locci invites the campus community to “come and discover” the farm.

“I think of the farm as a library—we serve everyone,” she said.

Visit the farm at 37125 Fairmount Blvd. in Hunting Valley. A shuttle running between campus and the farm is available Monday through Saturday for groups of six or more. Though it does not have a set daily schedule, individuals can email farm@case.edu to check availability or make a reservation. Find out more about the shuttle at students.case.edu/farm/transportation.html.