ORONO, Maine ― Every summer, for more than 20 years, the University of Maine has given sustainable agriculture students the opportunity to be in charge of their own farm.
Through the Black Bear Food Guild, a handful of students are given the reins to 2 acres of university-owned farmland on the Rogers Farm in Old Town, where they run an organic vegetable farm and operate a small community share agriculture program, or CSA.
For the students who hope to own their farm one day, the opportunity to oversee a farm operation from seed to harvest is invaluable
“I want to run my own farm one day, and this is a really great experience to see what works and what doesn’t,” student Ian MacLellan said. “The benefit is really a culmination of the experience and the chance to be involved in something awesome like this that offers organic food at pretty reasonable prices.”
Each year the Black Bear Food Guild is run by two or three sustainable-agriculture students.
At the helm of the farm this year are MacLellan, Parker Anderson and Kameron Haines, who all work full-time at the guild, along with Madison Lawler, who works part-time. MacLellan and Anderson, both juniors, returned to work on the farm for their second season this year.
The Black Bear Food Guild isn’t merely an extracurricular activity for the students to cite on their resumes; this is their full-time job during the growing season and if the farm fails, they don’t get paid. While the university provides a $1,000 seed grant to the guild, the remaining costs that come with running the farm and making sure the student are paid an hourly wage are covered by the sales of their CSA shares.
Ensuring that they have enough capital to cover their expenses is one of the reasons that having a CSA-model farm as opposed to a market model was attractive for the farm.
“The CSA style is becoming more and more popular partly because of the fact that it does help you with the expenses upfront,” MacLellan said. “You know exactly how many people you’re growing for by the time you start planting, and it really gives you a certainty that you can’t necessarily get at the farmers market.”
This year the program is filling about 65 shares of varying sizes, with pickups twice a week. Because the farm is being run by students ― and not seasoned farmers ― the cost of the shares are slightly less than the average price of CSA shares. Through the Black Bear Food Guild customers can purchase a quarter share for $175, a half share for $325 and a whole share for $500.
What is grown on the farm, and how much of an item is grown, is a call made by the student farmers based on customer feedback. At the beginning of the season they send out a survey to shareholders, which gives them an idea of what they should be growing. On the 1 acre they have in production this summer, the farmers are growing a host of herb and tomato varieties, along with peppers, kale, squash and cucumbers, among other vegetables and flowers.
“You get a lot of freedom to do and grow what you want for, the most part,” Anderson said.
While UMaine sustainable agriculture professor Eric Gallandt likens himself to the “grumpy dad” of the guild and its student farmers, he’s not a paid supervisor of the project. He’s there to lend a hand to the students when they need it because he believes in the program. The direction of the farm is entirely up to the students.
“The most beneficial thing about this experience from my perspective when you compare it to working on a real farm or if you compare it to other student farms, [these students] are really on their own,” Gallandt said. “Most student farms that I’ve learned about all have a paid person that adds continuity, and I have no doubt that we would probably have fewer weeds and maybe some of the crops might look a little better, but there is no comparison in terms of autonomy.”
While the program has stayed relatively the same size since it began in the mid-1990s, Gallandt is trying to expand the infrastructure available to the students. The guild is operating out of a small storage shed with a walk-in cooler in the back. The guild hopes to raise $150,000 to construct a “righteous farm building,” Gallandt said.
With some customers purchasing shares from the farm year after year, Gallandt attributes the success of the Black Bear Food Guild not only to the students running it but also to the community that supports it.
“We have to raise all of our revenue and these guys are beginning farmers every year. We have a very dedicated and loyal group of customers,” Gallandt said. “They keep coming back because they love supporting the students and that’s really nice.”
Participating students said the guild is a perfect opportunity to put the theory they’ve learned in the classroom to practice in the field, from the benefits of crop rotation to the paperwork-filled process of organic certification.
In the sustainable-agriculture program students are required to complete a certain number of hours of field work, whether it’s apprenticing on a farm or conducting research. While both MacLellan and Anderson have worked on other farms before, their experiences running the show the past two summers at the Black Bear Food Guild prepares them for their future farming pursuits.
“The amount of autonomy that we have here to make the decisions is unparalleled,” MacLellan said. “We’re the ones running the farm.”