Reflections of a Service Learner at Cornercopia Student Organic Farm

By Lauren Arndt a Student in Hort 1905: Growing Food & Building Community, Urban Ag in the Twin Cities

To fulfill my Service Learning requirement, I decided to volunteer at Cornercopia Urban Farm on the St. Paul campus. I volunteered on Monday, October 19th from 12 to 3 in the afternoon, right before Horticulture class. I worked with two other undergraduate students, as well as with the head of the organic garden, Courtney. One undergraduate student was a Fisheries and Wildlife Management major and I spoke to her about her experiences so far, as she was a sophomore. The other undergraduate student I worked with was an Applied Economics major. He was also a transfer student who had come here all the way from Malaysia for the school year. We all worked together to clean up the garden, as harvesting any produce like tomatoes was certainly out of the question at this time of the year. We mostly cleaned up the sections of the garden that had held tomatoes over the course of the growing season. Each row of tomatoes had plastic netting strung between two stakes and there were plastic clips at the base of each tomato plant. The netting was placed between each row so that the tomato plants could grow along the plastic. This allows the plant’s fruit to stay above the ground so that it does not become as susceptible to disease and bugs. The plastic clips at the base of each were placed there while the plants were still young in order to give them some support. We were there to clean out these clips and netting from the endless rows of dead tomatoes, as Courtney absolutely loved every type of tomato known to mankind. It took much longer than expected to clear just one row of netting: We all took clippers and cleared all tomato plants that were entwined through the netting while also collecting each and every plastic clip at the base of the plants. When each net was clear of all plants, three people worked together to roll the netting up and tie it together with twine. Each roll of netting is reusable, so each roll was organized in a pile so that it could be stored for next year. Some rows had netting entwined with so many tomato plants, that it took 15 to 20 minutes just to finish one roll. This is the process that we repeated for 3 hours, clearing about 15 rows in all.
Even though the process of clearing these rows sounds repetitive and slightly boring, it was rather satisfying in its own way. We didn’t have the pleasure of picking any fruit or vegetables, but it was still nice to help Courtney clean up and therefore, prepare for the next year. I was very involved in high school, especially in a volunteer group called Key Club and ever since college started, I had been missing that one piece in my life. It felt very good to give my time to help someone out again and it was actually slightly hard to leave that day to go to class. When I arrived I assumed and more just expected that Courtney would act as a boss more than anything else, so when I started out working I kept to myself and didn’t talk unless spoken to. However, that assumption was quickly proved wrong as Courtney started talking to us about our year so far and asking what we liked most about our college experience. It wasn’t long before all four of us – Courtney and us three students – were talking and having fun while clearing out tomato plants. I had also assumed before coming to Cornercopia, that my volunteering experience would be pretty boring, seeing as the growing season was virtually over and there would be no harvesting to be done. This made me a little disappointed from the start; however, as stated previously, that assumption was quickly overturned when I found how satisfying clearing out all those sets of netting was. This activity definitely did not require much skill but it did reveal to me that I have not had enough experience in the garden. Blisters began to form on my thumbs after only 15 minutes and my legs were tired from squatting so much to clip tomato plants. After only the first hour it was clear to me that gardening takes a special type of physical endurance, one that comes with plenty of gardening. I obviously do not know much about gardening either. Courtney would tell us things about the garden off the top of her head, things that I had never heard of before. Even though all this garden work revealed to me my lack of gardening skill, it did reveal to me that I enjoy gardening. I was definitely more than willing to get my hands dirty and I didn’t care much about kneeling in the dirt and working in the rain, in fact, I rather enjoyed it. The lack of gardening knowledge that I possess may have been disheartening at first but I found that just doing this one small thing was satisfaction enough and after talking to Courtney more and more, I reminded myself that learning all this is what experience will bring. So, while I may not know much now I could get the hang of gardening and the knowledge that comes with it and in the meantime, I can just enjoy getting dirty and full of tomato residue.
All the volunteer work I completed at Cornercopia that day was collaborative. While we all cut tomato plants on our own, we worked from one end to the other and met in the middle. Since there were four people all working on this particular project, we split up in to two groups and made clearing a row go a little faster. When each row was clear, one person held the netting while the other started to bind it with twisty ties and both worked to roll it up afterwards. It was a very efficient way to get things done and made me open up and talk to the people more since I got to work with them instead of just beside them.
All four of the people that worked on the garden that day, including Courtney, had certain privileges. We were all able to make it to Cornercopia; we all had easy transportation and access to it. All I needed to do to get involved was email Courtney and take the campus connector to the St. Paul campus. Our privilege came from college itself. If I did not go the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, I probably would never have heard of Cornercopia urban garden. The two other students I worked with, as well as myself, have the access to go to college, hear about such places and become involved. There are many people that may not have the means to get to gardens or fresh food in general. Others may not even hear about anything of the sort. They have every right to access to fresh foods and to privileges such as mine, yet they have somehow become forgotten in a world where money is everything, even privilege itself. It is my hope that with help and time, all people have access to the privileges that I take advantage of everyday.
During my volunteer experience, even in the short three hours, I learned much about Cornercopia’s organization. It mostly plays a large role within the University of Minnesota campus. Some of the vegetables that are grown throughout the season are given to the dining halls so that students have access to fresh food even in the dorms. Another part of the produce is sold at a farmer’s market on Wednesdays in the summer and early fall. Also, a lot of the time and effort that goes into Cornercopia goes into research. Many students eager to discover new things about plant behavior and urban farming are allowed to conduct their own research in the garden. This allows for growth in not only the student’s knowledge but the entire campus’ knowledge as well. This research can lead to new discoveries about irrigation methods or protection from pests – each new discovery leads to the development of urban farming. So while other urban gardens and farms have more of a connection with the community, Cornercopia mostly works within the University to discover to methods as well as work with the students; however, they have been working on also joining in with the community especially since a new urban garden has been built directly next to the University. Cornercopia is expanding its boundaries to help the community as much as it helps the University.
While working at the garden that day, I mostly applied what I have learned so far to the gardening itself. I asked Courtney questions that applied to being the head of a garden, so naturally, I applied the elements of organization and leadership. What would you do if the tomatoes were wrought with disease and pests? What would happen if it was a dry summer? Questions such as these that pertain mostly to being in charge of an urban garden or farm. In class, we have talked of such decisions and how much work goes into creating and maintaining a garden. By applying such a focus while volunteering, I was able to ask Courtney questions that I may understand a little better, now that I have seen and heard so many stories of people creating urban gardens and farms. I learned so much in the short three hours that I worked at Cornercopia, mostly due to my conversations with Courtney. I learned that since tomatoes are very susceptible to disease, they should not be planted in the same spot for the next seven to eight years. That is much longer than I had ever expected as I had always assumed that one to two years in between would suffice. Courtney also talked of the very system we were cleaning up. In previous years, she and other volunteers would put an individual stake next to each tomato plant and clip them together. This was long, tedious work and it wasn’t until this very year that they had decided to try the plastic netting. It was definitely a lot more efficient and easier for everyone especially since this plastic netting is reusable. I also learned about the walkways between the beds. All paths contained White Dutch Clover, a perennial that restores nitrogen in the soil. This will distinguish the paths as well as restore a necessary nutrient back into the soil for the benefit of the garden. This idea hadn’t been put into place until a few years ago and Courtney says it has been doing very well thus far. These are just some examples of development within a garden. A garden is not perfect the first year it begins; it will progress with time as people learn more. All this I learned just by asking questions. Talking to people about their hard work is very interesting because they get excited about it and are eager to tell you all that they have done; you are able to share their excitement and learn from them. No I am able to apply some of this to Horticulture class. When we go on field trips and I hear the plans and the stories of the hard work beginning a garden, I can use Courtney’s own stories in order to understand where these people come from. By talking to one person, I am now able to understand more and more people as they tell their stories.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Cornercopia. I got to work outside, get my hands dirty and give my time to help out. Not only did I learn a lot about the people I worked with that day, I also learned a little bit about what Cornercopia is all about and the opportunities it presents to both the University and its students. I also learned much about urban farming in general, which was very helpful since I do not know too much about gardening myself. I plan on using what I learned there at Cornercopia as well as what I learn in Horticulture on my own garden at home, such as crop families, soil nutrition and garden tips. I will be able to apply all that I have learned and may even learn a little more as I try things for myself, and for that I am thoroughly excited. I plan on continuing involvement in Cornercopia especially in the spring when the growing season begins again and I also plan on looking into volunteering at other urban gardens that we have visited throughout the semester so that I can learn more about gardening as well as help people that need access to these fresh fruits and vegetables.


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