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On crop planning & cactus growing

Nearly a decade ago, Brent Murcia ’16 tried to grow a cactus—one of the most low-maintenance plants out there—and failed miserably. “It was the only thing I’ve ever grown. I killed it. I under-watered it,” he said with a bashful grin.

Despite his shaky history in plant care, Murcia, along with Walter Edstrom ’17 will take charge of the Carleton Farm this summer. As the Carleton Farm Interns, Murica and Edstrom started planning for the upcoming season over winter term and attended the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Conference February 26-28.

At the conference, Murcia, Edstrom and several other students interested in farming, along with their faculty adviser biology professor David Hougen-Eitzman, attended seminars about composting, crop planning, time management, and farm productivity.

Since then, they have used a crop-planning Excel spreadsheet template to figure out how many seeds they need to order, how many row feet they will plant, and when everything needs to be seeded, transplanted and harvested. The growing season has begun with the planting of eggplants, tomatoes, basil, peppers, onions and watermelon in the Hulings Hall greenhouses. They also plan on growing mushrooms for the first time ever.

The interns are lucky because this year, unlike in past years, several of the former farm interns are helping them plan for the coming season. This will allow them to take past experience into consideration, such as which tomatoes grow best where, explained Edstrom. They will also help create a new washing station for the produce.

They also plan on paying close attention to crop rotation, a practice that works to avoid nutrient depletion in the soil. When crop rotation is not utilized, the same crops are planted in the same area, and the plant will soon lack sufficient nutrients to grow because the soil has had no chance to rest. Edstrom explained that this mindfulness, along with other considerations “will make the farm a more long-term institution at Carleton, which will help it become a more integrated part of Carleton life in general.”

Despite careful soil management, the farm has faced field damage in recent years. “We are actually learning some of the direct effects that conventional agriculture can have on land usage,” said Edstrom, explaining that the fields near Farm House, and the annex next to the baseball fields used to be farmed conventionally.

Carleton leased those fields to the Peterson family, who own Ferndale Market. The Petersons only grew corn and soy and relied on chemical-based, liquefied nutrients for fertilizer, the combination of which depleted the soil, explained Edstrom. In order to combat this, Edstrom and Murcia plan on “cover cropping more intensely than in years past,” said Edstrom.

While Edstrom is not sure if herbicides and pesticides used by Grounds such as Roundup spill over into the fields, he has noticed that some areas of the farm that have been intensely farmed since the 1990’s do not grow crops as well anymore.

Edstrom, like Murcia, has little farming experience aside from participating in volunteer days on the farm last summer. However, the pair is eager and share a love of being outside. “I always got a lot of enjoyment from working outside and working with my hands,” said Edstrom.

Murcia said, “I guess I just like the idea of spending my summer doing something that’s really productive and personally meaningful and that I can see the results of.”

However, aside from enjoying manual labor, Edstrom and Murcia hope that the Carleton Farm will have a larger significance for students and the community.

Edstrom and Murcia hope to find a way to sell produce to students living in interests houses or Northfield Option, so that the off- campus community can get more involved. Murcia explained that they also hope to have a farmers’ market in Sayles once a week.

In order to reach out beyond Carleton, Edstrom and Murcia plan on bringing 10-13 year olds from Faribault, the hungriest city in Minnesota, to the farm to learn about how food is grown, and how delicious fresh produce is. Edstrom hopes that it will “provide a nice outreach instead of keeping [the farm] as an insular Carleton community.

“I think there is a lot taken for granted, not by everyone, but I think there is some of that. Carleton gives everything to us in a way. It’s really easy to get insulated by that and not think about how the really cool stuff in our lives comes to be. It’s really important to have the farm here because it’s actually helping us to look at where all of this comes from. The food we grow here is then eaten,” said Murcia.

Both interns hope that the Carleton Farm will allow students who are interested to learn more about where their food comes from. “We are made out of the food that we eat. You are just made out of the calories that are in your body. Having a connection to where that’s coming from sort of gives more meaning to yourself,” explained Edstrom.

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