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Celebrating the farm-dining-research connection at U Mich

Attractions for community and students include farm tours, local snacks, yoga, live music, pumpkin painting and the debut of a new freight farm to be used for studying the carbon footprint of food.

Harvest Fest, a student-run event at the University of Michigan’s campus farm, puts the spotlight on campus dining’s partnership with the campus farm and academic research leaders, plus the major role students play in that symbiotic relationship. The Sunday-afternoon fest was a combo of education and fun from pumpkin painting to freight farming.

An upbeat gathering despite a drizzly day, “the Harvest Fest celebrates the campus farm and sustainability and dining employing student farm workers and buying produce thru the year,” says Alex Bryan, sustainable food program manager for Michigan Dining. “We gathered around the straw bale building, with adobe on the outside and lumber from fallen trees. It was unveiled last year; it’s green construction built by students.”

That hands-on, student-focused approach to sustainability, agriculture and forward-thinking research is something the dining department is proud to be a part of, Bryan says.

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Local produce and live music was on hand at U Mich’s Harvest Fest. Michigan Dining prides itself on partnership with both the campus farm and academic research on sustainability.

“It’s transformed the way we approach our work,” he says. “We want to brand Michigan Dining around the work we’re doing in this space, so our customers know this is the something we care about.”

Snacks were available throughout the fest, highlighting local produce and local producers as well, all put together by students. Working with the community is another facet of U Mich’s approach to sustainability.

“It’s fun for students, because it’s attended by about half local community and half campus community, so the students get to connect with people beyond the university,” Bryan says. 

The freight farm, a structure made out of a repurposed shipping container, was a main attraction at the fest. It’s on a research loan to the university for two years, in which students will grow produce and measure its carbon footprint.

U Mich’s dining department has embarked on an ongoing carbon footprint study headed up by grad students. The freight container, repurposed into a hydroponic garden, will be an interesting addition to the study, and data should be useful to the future of food, Bryan says.

“[The freight farm] is placed in campus farm to grow food, but also to ask important research questions that are just not being asked in new technology for the climate,” Bryan says. “We never actually ask, ‘Is it really better?’ It looks cool, but we don’t have the data to back up that it’s actually better…No one has this data, so we’ll collect it.”

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The research, student farm and dining department are working together to study the impact of freight farm vs. hoop houses in terms of carbon footprint the ongoing research on carbon footprints.

Concerns about freight farms include the fact that they use energy for heating and cooling because of lights used, something hoop houses don’t typically do. “My guess is that unheated greenhouses/hoop houses are the more efficient way to grow…the sun is really efficient at what it does…anytime we take that energy and turn it into lightbulbs…”

Another area of research will be marketing and engaging the community in sustainability efforts, part of a project the dining program will participate in with six graduate design students who are looking at access and equity around food systems. Stay tuned for more sustainability research out of Michigan!

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