It's Full Speed Ahead at Dartmouth's Organic Farm

Veggies are thriving, student farmers are meeting online, and all the produce will be donated this year.  

Nature is not in lockdown. While COVID-19 has brought many indoor Dartmouth activities to a temporary halt, the growing season is at full tilt at the Organic Farm. And even though manager Laura Braasch and her assistant, Molly McBride '14, don't have student interns to help them get this year's crops in the ground, they worked overtime to get seedlings going in the greenhouse.

Meanwhile Dartmouth's student farmers found creative, nurturing ways to maintain their close agricultural community during this stay-at-home time. Since the students can't yet get their hands dirty on the farm, Braasch and McBride sent a little bit of the farm to each of them. 

"For Earth Week, Molly and I made these little hand-stamped seed packets of kale and sunflowers seeds that we grew last year and we mailed them out to people who requested them, so they could plant them at home," Braasch says.

In the silver-lining department, the pause in manual labor has given some students the time to work together remotely on long-term projects that might otherwise simmer on the back burner.

"Using Zoom, we're planning a permaculture garden, identifying the plants, coming up with the design, and figuring out where we want to plant stuff," says Braasch. "We're trying to think of it as an opportunity to tackle some of those projects that just take a little bit more research and thought."

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Organic Farm employee Molly McBride '14 waters plants in one of the greenhouses.
Organic Farm employee Molly McBride '14 waters plants in one of the greenhouses. (Photo by Robert Gill)

She and McBride have also been creating short videos to help professors knit organic farming practices into course content. "For example, Theresa Ong, assistant professor of environmental studies, is working with us for her class in sustainable food systems," Braasch says.

Whether gathering around the pizza oven, sharing harvest dinners, playing music or brewing kombucha, the organic farm crews play as avidly as they work. Even during the COVID-19 crisis, they've held Zoom baking classes and dance parties, and they've filled their Instagram stream with both lighthearted and more serious stories about living, planting, and eating through a pandemic.

Club leader Rachel Kent '21, who is from Indianapolis, missed seeing spring come to the farm. Even though she was raised in a corn-belt state, she'd never really been interested in agriculture until she came to Dartmouth.

"You know, you drive through the Midwest and it's not inviting at all, all those fields of monoculture. But when I came to New England and saw these wonderful farms, including our Organic Farm, that are beautiful and green, and you can walk out into the fields and snag a lunchbox pepper, that's really cool," she says.

A geography major and Stamps scholar, Kent hopes that by the time those peppers are ripening, she'll be back in Hanover, filling her basket. It's not certain yet, when or if in-person classes—and farming—will happen this fall. But she's staying optimistic.

"I think it's really, really important for Dartmouth students to take the time out of their normal lives and come together at the farm to celebrate the seasons, celebrate each other, listen to good music and eat good food. And I think all that is at the heart of community, bringing gratitude and joy, and those things are even more important right now, in the midst of this pandemic, than they ever were before."

All of this year's Organic Farm produce will be donated to Willing Hands, an Upper Valley nonprofit that distributes free, wholesome food to people in need. Braasch says the farm is putting a priority on nutritious crops that can be easily stored, like beets, kale, squash, beans, and carrots (as opposed to highly perishable vegetables, such as tomatoes). And there will be plenty of lettuce, which can be hard to come by at food pantries. The farm is also planning to provide produce to students who have needed to stay on campus and may not be able to meet all their own food needs.

"It's always so uplifting to start planting after a long, dark winter, but this year it feels especially hopeful," says Braasch. "The world keeps turning. We're going to get through this, and we're going to start inching back to a reality that we're all familiar with, when we can all interact with each other again. We have such a dedicated community of students who love the farm and who treat this land as their home."