Farming at Oakland University : Student Garden Grows into Thriving Program

On a corner of Oakland University’s property in sprawling Rochester Hills, it still feels like country. This is where Matilda Dodge Wilson once raised poultry and where, in 1959, the university’s first classes met. It’s quiet here, and the bustle of the city and university feel far away.

In 2009, students in environmental science and business classes asked the university for permission to start a garden, returning a 30- by 84-foot portion of the former Meadowbrook Farm to agriculture. They were supervised by Fay Hansen, PhD, associate professor of biological sciences. Hansen had completed a year of training in organic farming at Michigan State University and then, “I just bumped into these students who started the garden,” she recalls. When she learned of a grant opportunity that could bring gardening into the curriculum, she took a shot.

Today students can take classes with laboratory components in organic farming and permaculture (a type of sustainable agriculture) and get hands-on experience in two gardens and a hoop house that are managed by Jared Hanna.“We’re in the biology department so we do a lot of work promoting healthy soil biology. We have a really amazing product. We can get two to five times the yield,” Hanna says. “We grow very intensively, bio-intensive planting. We work with environmental science students to do soil testing and monitoring. They actually get real-world experience.”

Using organic principles, students do everything from planting to harvesting to selling at an on-campus market stall. “We try to use best practices all around,” Hanna says. This year the garden ordered 35 types of vegetables, herbs and flowers. Varieties are integrated for pest management, and it’s all served by drip irrigation. Hanna is hoping the gardens will be certified organic soon.

On a July visit, Walla Walla onions had grown big in the crumbly black soil. Rows of kale, squash, cabbage, amaranth, peppers, radishes, kohlrabi, leeks, corn and beets were ready for the opening of the on-campus market. Perhaps the most awe-inducing were the tomatoes. Growing vertically in the 30- by 96-foot hoop house— installed just a year ago—the plants were over six feet tall and loaded with fruit. Cucumbers were also growing vertically, while basil, radishes and lettuces were tucked in underneath. Some crops overwintered for a harvest last March.

Though grants got the program up and running, Hanna says the garden’s operating budget is funded by sales of its products. So seeds are saved from one year to the next, transplants are grown here and seedlings thinned from the crowded beds are eaten or composted. There’s even money to hire a student or two.

An OU graduate, Hanna developed an interest in permaculture and started a consulting business on garden development. When Hansen received her initial grant, Hanna was hired as a part-time, temporary manager. Now full time, he also has teaching and class development duties.

“Most gardens are really hard to keep up if it’s only volunteers,” Hansen says. “An academic program with just classes and no garden would be very hard. Students, no matter what class it is, will come away saying, ‘I had no idea how much is involved in putting food on a plate.’”

In addition to the students whose classes require them to spend time in the garden, students from other departments volunteer, as do community members. “People want to learn, and they have a good time learning here,” Hanna says. “A lot of students, a lot of young people, are thinking about sustainability, thinking about our future.”

Sara Serota, an OU senior biology student from Leonard, started a lab class in May that brings her to the garden to work. She’s never grown food before. “It definitely gives you hands-on experience that you’re not getting in the classroom,” she says.

Hansen says more classes for non-biology students are in the works. But beyond academics, something special happens when you get people together in a garden. “It’s homey; it’s not institutional,” she says. “ They meet new people, and you hear such interesting conversations. You really can’t put a price on that academically.”

Hanna sees a trend toward growing more in less space. “In Oakland County there are really no zoned farms,” he says. “So it’s nice to be sort of an example for the community, to show what you can do in a small space.”

The gardening program is heavily involved with the community, including the Baldwin Center and the Kennedy Center for developmentally disabled young adults, both in Pontiac. There is also interest in working with the university’s autism micro-business program, and discussion is under way to organize a coalition for urban gardeners in Pontiac.

“What we really want to do is train the trainers,” Hansen says. “So much more food can be grown and used—if it’s done right.”Campus-wide composting, an on-site salad shop, getting fresh produce onto soup-kitchen plates—the list of possibilities goes on and on. “We are not short of daydreams,” Hansen says. “It’s very exciting for me. I can’t retire, because I’m having too much fun.”

More info about the Campus Student Organic Farm:


Annette Kingsbury is an OU graduate who gardens and cooks in Lathrup Village. This story was originally posted in the Fall 2015 Edition of Edible WOW. Contact Edible WOW at [email protected]