A Small Campus Farm in Indiana Spreads Big Ideas about Urban Agriculture
February 27, 2017 | Karen Briner
A small farm on the campus of Butler University in Indiana serves not only as a living example of the potential for urban agriculture, but is also functions as a hub for “research, education, and outreach.” The farm is managed by the University’s Center for Urban Ecology (CUE). Started in 2010 by CUE and student members of Earth Charter Butler, the farm initially occupied about a quarter of an acre of land on the university’s campus, which grew to an acre when grant money allowed for its expansion.
In 2011 the farm hired its first full-time manager and staff member, Tim Dorsey. Like many people drawn to urban farming, Tim didn’t have a background in agriculture. In fact, he graduated from college with a degree in Philosophy and only afterward became interested in issues affecting the food system, such as diminishing farmland and disappearing farm communities. Influenced by authors like Wendell Berry he soon started his own backyard garden that grew and expanded, along with his knowledge. Now Tim applies what he’s learned to the CUE farm and has embraced the project’s multiple objectives, which include creating awareness about the local food system and being a practical, living demonstration of sustainable agriculture.
Tim explains, the CUE farm is operating as both a successful market-oriented farm with an eye toward profit and as a center for urban farming education. Initially the educational outreach was quite informal and involved encouraging anyone who showed an interest, from Butler students to grade schools and community groups, to tour the farm and learn more about local, small scale and sustainable agriculture. This is especially important in a city like Indianapolis which, according to the CUE website, ranks as the “worst in the U.S. for urban food deserts.”
The CUE farm generates revenue, but it does not run at a profit and is externally funded with grant money. The farm has a few unique challenges that arise from its location in a flood plain. Because it is on low ground, the soil is heavy and stays wet longer than similar farms in other areas of the city. A wide variety of vegetables and leafy greens are grown, as well as fruits including gooseberries, raspberries, and strawberries. The farm also grow hazelnuts, apples and peaches. Markets have shown an interest in the perennial fruits, and the trees add an aesthetic element to the flat landscape. While the farm is not pursuing organic certification, everything is grown naturally, no chemicals are used and the focus is on sustainable practices and building top soil.
Produce is sold to three local restaurants and the CUE farm has a small CSA program and a weekly farm stand – where subscribers can pick up their shares. Tim is actively trying to increase the farm’s revenue as well as looking at ways to create awareness and draw more students to visit the farm stand. For example, holding a pop-up farm stand on a more central spot on campus created awareness amongst students who had not previously visited the farm and who are now more likely to do so.
While the physical size of the farm is set, there are still a few nooks and crannies where Tim is adding fruits and vegetables. Additionally, the CUE farm is hoping to receive a grant that will allow it to go into mushroom production. The proposed project will involve growing mushrooms on different media, such as on logs in the woods, on straw, and on woodchips in the shade of other crops.
In its first few years the focus of the CUE farm has been on putting growing systems in place to establish the farm. Now CUE is ready to expand the educational components on the farm. Director of CUE, Julia Angstmann has built partnerships with professors across various disciplines at Butler who have developed research modules within their classes that use the farm as the focus. This interdisciplinary approach ensures that it’s not only biology students doing, for example, soil tests on the farm, but also involves students studying communications, education, and business. For example, a current research project being conducted by a student from the College of Communication is entitled “CUE Farm Marketing through Storytelling,” while a project from the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences deals with the “Nutritional/Health Benefits of CUE Farm Products.” Tim adds that CUE is also doing meta-research, looking at how students themselves are affected as a result of their involvement in agricultural projects.
These various educational programs align with CUE’s greater objective “to connect students, faculty, and community in a common effort to explore, enhance, and steward the urban environment through research, education, and outreach.”