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Spring 2012
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Feature

Bringing Cornellians Closer to their Food

Campus farms are nourishing both students and communities, and contributing valuable lessons about sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems.

By Aaron Munzer

Local Market
Credit: University Photography

Economists at the Dyson School are studying ways to enhance access to local foods.

For the past three years, thousands of pounds of fresh produce have been grown in the rich soil on one end of Cornell’s sprawling campus and served to thousands of hungry students on the other.

Several of the steers that graze on the grass at Cornell’s Teaching and Research Center in Dryden end up nourishing diners at Trillium.

And food waste is sent to Farm Services, where it is composted and used to grow next year’s crops for the dining halls, completing a cycle that contributes to the university’s commitment to sustainability.

The growing collaboration between Cornell Dining and the farms operated by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station is evidence of a concerted effort to increase the share of locally grown food served on campus, and research done on those farms is also helping promote sustainable agriculture and food systems in communities that are increasingly hungry for healthy food produced nearby.

From the Fields of Freeville to the Tables of Trillium

At Campus Area Farms, supervisor Tim Dodge sold about 15,000 pounds of research-grown potatoes to Cornell Dining last year. At the Freeville Farm, where 30 acres of cropland have been certified organic, manager Steve McKay sets aside about four acres for sweet corn and butternut squash to feed hungry students in dining halls across campus.

Beef is the latest addition to the local foods offered on Cornell menus. Since March of 2010, Cornell has purchased three steers of cattle per week from local farms, amounting to 59,221 pounds of locally raised and processed beef. The steers are finished at the Cornell Teaching and Research Center for three months before being processed at a family-owned slaughterhouse in nearby Troy, Pa. Cornell uses the entire animal, serving the prime cuts of local beef in Cornell Dining’s all-you-care-to-eat dining rooms and Cornell Catering.

“This is an ongoing program that we intend to continue to grow,” said Cornell Dining director Gail Finan ’69. “Not only is it part of our commitment to sustainability, but it will put thousands of dollars in the hands of local farmers and businesses.”

Students and the public will have another way to connect more closely with their food on campus when the new four-story Stocking Hall building is unveiled next spring. The project started in the fall of 2010 with $105 million from the State University Construction Fund, and it will give both the Department of Food Science and Cornell Dairy new state-of-the-art homes.

The open design of the dairy plant encourages the public “to better understand how our food is made; how milk is processed and packaged,” according to Jason Huck, MS ’06, general manager of Cornell’s dairy operations. Its glass front, observational balcony and “how it’s made” educational displays are designed to prompt viewers to think more about the ice cream they are about to enjoy in the adjacent Dairy Bar.

“It will give the general public a view of a dairy plant they wouldn’t normally see and help folks understand how milk is transformed from cow to the cup—or cone for those ice cream lovers,” he said.

High Tunnel
Credit: University Photography

High tunnel technology used at Cornell is helping small farmers diversify their crops and extend their growing season.

The adjacent Stocking Hall lobby also includes an extension conference room, which will allow the facility to continue its mission of teaching and research as well as public education. Huck said not only will the public learn from the new building, but New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets inspectors, industry personnel, and graduate students will all benefit from trainings conducted at the enhanced facility.

Although the dairy plant has ceased making the popular Cornell ice cream during the renovation and has stopped packaging all types of milk for on-campus consumption, it continues to produce yogurt and pudding products. It also pasteurizes and packages Cornell Orchards’ cider, as well as a variety of other bulk-packaged juices and seasonal eggnog. These products are distributed to dining areas and kitchens across campus, and they are packaged for sale at Cornell Dining convenience stores and the Cornell Orchards retail store.

Once the new plant is up and running, it will begin production of fluid milk and ice cream once again.

“In the coming months, we will begin to take suggestions for new ice cream flavors from Cornell Dairy fans following us on Facebook and Twitter,” Huck said.

With enough interest, Huck said they would like to make a frozen yogurt and soft serve mix for campus dispensers. They’re also exploring the feasibility of drinkable yogurt and brewed ice tea products.

The plant is also giving a nod to local cheese lovers. Working with scientists in the Department of Food Science and the dairy industry, Cornell Dairy is developing Cornell Big Red Cheddar, a medium aged cheddar wheel that will be sold on campus and served to guests at the Statler Hotel and at Cornell Catering events. The first few batches of the cheese will be taste tested later this year.

Reaching Out to Small Farmers and Communities

Potatos
Credit: Robyn Wishna

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has long supported farming in its many forms, and its research and innovation in the fields continues to evolve in response to emerging needs and interests. Recently this has manifested itself in a variety of ways.

A five-year collaboration between Cornell, Ithaca College, the University of Wyoming, and five communities in three states aims to engage students, faculty and staff in their local food movements through community-based learning and action research.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food Dignity Project is being led by Christine Porter, Ph.D. ’10, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Wyoming. Cornell participants include Laurie Drinkwater and Scott Peters from horticulture, Philip McMichael from development sociology, Jonathan Matthew Russell-Anelli, MS ’98, Ph.D. ’00 from crop and soil sciences, and Suzanne Gervais, Ph.D. ’99 from the Division of Nutritional Sciences. Jemila Sequeria, coordinator of the Whole Community Project for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, is providing leadership for the Food Dignity Project in the Ithaca community.

“We’re lucky because we have a vital community surrounding Cornell with a lot of activity relating to the food system and sustainability,” Drinkwater said.

In her own research, Drinkwater often works with local vegetable and grain farmers to improve their nutrient and soil management practices, which gives her students excellent experience in the field and also gives local farmers like Red Tail Farm and Blue Heron Farm insights on how to improve their own farming practices.
“In particular, we’ve been focusing on sustainable soil management practices that help to maintain their soil fertility over time and reduce greenhouse gas pollution, by working with cover crops,” she said.

The Cornell Small Farms Program supplements such work with established farmers through an ambitious campaign to educate and inspire beginning farmers across the region: the Northeast Beginning Farmers Project.

Program Coordinator Violet Stone said the project has revolutionized services to small farmers. From the project website, www.nebeginningfarmers.org, aspiring farmers can read tutorials, use online worksheets, and watch informative online videos featuring everything from in-depth interviews with successful farmers to up-close methods of farm operations, like chicken processing.

“Basically, you can work your way through the templates and end up with the foundation for a business plan,” Stone said.

They also offer about 20 online courses during the farming off-season, taught by educators and farmers, and they are working with agricultural educators to bring the craft of farming back into the classroom, Stone said. In the future they hope to cater some of their services specifically to urban and minority farmers.

Breaking the Chains

Diners at Trillium
Credit Lindsay France/University Photography

Diners at Trillium get to enjoy local beef and produce grown on Cornell farms.

In conjunction with these efforts, two economists at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management—Miguel Gómez and Edward McLaughlin, the Robert G. Tobin Professor of Marketing—have devoted some of their research to comparing local and mainstream food supply chains.

As part of a larger, nationwide study conducted in 2010, they found that the lowest priced apples in Syracuse were those sold at the farmers market, contrary to the common perception that prices at farmers markets are often higher than in supermarkets.

“This finding challenges the conventional view that farmers markets target primarily affluent customers who are willing to pay premiums for local products,” Gómez said.

They suggest that public policy makers should release certain constraints on local growers to combine the best of local and mainstream distribution channels and to enhance links with established infrastructure, such as supermarkets and food service.

Such findings are being put into practice by the Cornell Farm to School Program, which works to integrate more local produce into institutional settings, such as grade schools and colleges. Its use of outreach education and research to promote healthier foods in schools in a way that supports local farmers recently prompted the Mother Nature Network to list it among the top 10 “Most Impressive Farm to School Programs.”

Feeding A Need

Food grown on campus is also used to feed the hungry across the community. This past year, Steve McKay’s Freeville research farm donated 174,000 pounds of produce to area pantries, including Loaves and Fishes in Cortland, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, and Friendship Foods of Ithaca, which increases access to fresh vegetables for families in need. Cornell Orchards, which sells around 470,000 pounds of apples per season, also donated around 15,330 pounds of fruit to local charities last year.

A new collaboration with farmers and New York’s food banks hopes to increase the amount of food donated directly from farms to the state’s hungry. Called gleaning, it is an ancient concept that dates back to the medieval feudal system, when farmers and large landowners were encouraged or required by law to allow the poor to gather crops in the field after the harvest. These days, gleaning generally refers to the collection of food from fields left behind because of mechanical harvesting losses, cosmetic blemishes or lack of markets for the crops, or from farmers’ packing lines and storage houses.

The Cornell Gleaning Project was launched in the summer of 2011 to answer the call of farmers who wanted more guidance about the opportunities and obstacles of gleaning.

Food bank directors also expressed an interest in New York farmers as sources of food for donation because the food is locally grown, farmers are perceived to be community-minded, and New York lacks the volume of food processing and manufacturing facilities that are sources of donations in other states.

“We have got to go to the source to get food donations. The more money that is invested in the product (as it moves through the supply chain), the harder it is to get it donated,” said Peter Ricardo, director of special nutrition projects for the Food Bank of Central New York.

Although many farmers expressed a strong desire to increase donations from their farm, they were also wary about the potential liability of allowing volunteer harvesters on private property.

The research conducted by the group—a collaboration between Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, and the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station—did find several limiting factors, including access to gleaning programs and suitable logistics for their success.

In a report presented to the New York State Council on Food Policy, they also noted that in some cases, it is useful for unharvested crops to be left in the field to decompose and add organic matter back to the soil, or to suppress weeds and reduce erosion.

But they also uncovered many benefits throughout the food supply chain, and future plans include a gleaning pilot project and the development of guidelines for farmers who want to donate food.


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