In 2013, Southern Oregon University (SOU) in Ashland, Oregon started its own student-run farm. It started out as a small scale garden but has since grown to 5.5 acres.
“Over the years, we’ve been able to expand more and more, and now we’re operating as a small-scale horticulture farm,” says farm manager Zhu Parker.
Today, The Farm at SOU harvests and sells a variety of herbs and products to nearby shoppers, including the Ashland School District, who use the freshest ingredients to make their menus more interesting for students, support the local economy and help alleviate the problems of supply chain.
a symbiotic relationship
Fazenda no SOU has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the district since 2017, Parker said, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that the partnership really took off.
When things shut down due to COVID-19, the farm, which normally sells what it harvests to the university’s food program, was left with a lot of unused produce.
“Without a lot of people here, we had a lot of food but not a lot of places to go,” says Parker.
The farm ended up working with the district to provide families and others in the community with boxes of surplus food.
At the end of the summer, it also began supplying products for the district’s backpack program. The grant-funded program allows local families to purchase bags of fresh produce and non-perishable items each week during the months when classes are not in session.
Like the produce crates during the early days of COVID, the backpack program has helped the farm find a home for many of its produce and keep families in the community fed.
After the success of the fruit and vegetable boxes, the district began to regularly buy products from the farm whenever they were available during the school year.
Incorporating fresh ingredients into the menu
What is available depends on the season and what the farm can grow. This fall, Ashland was able to buy squash, zucchini, peppers and lettuce, as well as a variety of herbs. Production was available from September through Thanksgiving.
After harvesting, the products destined for the district are washed and stored in regulated wax boxes for transport. The district’s main kitchen is a short drive from the farm, allowing farm workers to easily deliver produce.
Once in the district, the vast majority of fresh produce ends up on the salad bar.
“Ninety percent of that, I would say, goes right into salads,” says Ashland School director of nutrition Christina Lehman. “We have unlimited all-you-can-eat salads for all age groups in our district, so most come out as raw vegetables on the salad bar.”
Other products arrive at hand-made entrees. Pumpkin, for example, is turned into soup, while zucchini is incorporated into a vegetarian lasagna.
Benefits and challenges of local sourcing
Local sourcing comes with a higher price tag, says Lehman, especially when compared to product the district can receive using duty dollars up to tUS Department of Defense Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program (USDA DoD Fresh).
“It’s hard to compete with free, obviously, but there are also things we can’t do. [from USDA DoD Fresh]and we’re really committed to buying as much as we can locally,” she says.
The district uses state subsidies to help cover the extra costs of local purchases.
Working with nearby suppliers also has benefits, such as being less likely to experience supply chain issues, a challenge many school nutrition operators are facing this school year.
“We get as much food as we can from our local farms and ranches so we don’t have to be part of the supply chain issue,” says Lehman.
Students and parents alike are excited to have local ingredients on the menu, and staff are grateful that shopping nearby helps the local economy.
“By buying local, we’re obviously helping local jobs, and that helps people stay here and possibly get their kids through school here. So it’s a nice big round chain,” says Lehman.
Future growth plans
Lehman met with the farm team to discuss future plans. She would love for the farm to grow apples and more fruit as they are popular with the students.
“We love blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. So they’re talking about planting more of that for us in the future,” says Lehman.
Space is the farm’s main limitation when it comes to growing more produce, so the team is looking at different ways to expand. Renovation work has just been completed on the farmhouse which would allow them to produce more in the winter. The team is also trying to shorten the farm’s CSA program, which runs during the summer, to have more produce at the start of the school year that can be supplied to the district.
“Hopefully they can expand to where we can source more than 75% of the vegetables from the farm,” says Lehman.