Listen in, Michigan: Episode 52 – Harvest at the Campus Farm, featuring Jeremy Moghtader and Talya Soytas
Deborah Holdship: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.
In this episode of Listen in Michigan, we are celebrating the Harvest.
With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, it seemed ideal the ideal time to showcase U-M’s Campus Farm and all its bounty.
Founded by students in 2011 at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, the farm is a living learning lab – classic academic lingo, right? But it really is. It’s a place where students and researchers from any school and college can contribute their expertise – from engineering and public policy to biology and economics. It’s one of those living labs that is actually living. The goal is not only to produce good food and feed people fresh and ecologically grown produce, but to improve our multifaceted, complicated, wasteful, and often illogical food system. Social justice and equity are important topics at the farm, as much as preserving and optimizing our natural resources.
My guests today are Jermey Moghtader, program manager at the campus farm, and Talya Soytas, a student leader at the farm and an environment & economics major. Jeremy says most of the students he encounters aren’t looking at farming as a career. The majority of the students – like Talya — are seeking to increase their skill set and understanding of food production to better understand the entire food system; You can’t fix something you don’t understand. For Talya, it’s about creating a more robust space for small-scale and diversified farmers to survive and thrive in a world dominated by corporate mega farms and government subsidies.
Meanwhile, our changing climate will require new ways of thinking about co-optimizing resources, managing multiple land use, and developing new farming techniques – all great research topics for engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. Have you ever heard of agrophotovoltaics? Keep listening and you will. Either way, the opportunities at the farm are endless – it’s part of a virtuous circle on campus that includes U-M’s Sustainable Food Program, Michigan Dining, the Maize & Blue Cupboard, and more.
More than anything the Campus Farm is one of those places that provides everything a college experience should. It’s authentic. It’s high impact. It’s “co-curricular.” It’s perfect for the student who just wants to grow kolrabi for their fellow students and sell it at the Campus Farm Stand, or for the student with an eye on a Cabinet position in a future presidential administration that will transform policy.
I visited on a windy fall day when a crew of students and volunteers were harvesting the last of the squash and rainbow chard. Giving thanks comes naturally when you come upon those colorful fields. Just ask Talya…
Talya Sotyas: I always like our harvest season. Our harvest season is so joyful and bountiful. And it always makes me smile to go out and see the produce that is coming up and coming from our fields. it looks like just farming and it’s just you know pretty fields of food but there’s so much more that we do that is very intellectually stimulating. And that stimulation is very closely tied to the work that needs to go into the field. Because urban farming is also an aspect of that that needs to come into question with the climate crisis coming, like we need more farmers, but we need that work to be desirable. That occupation needs to not be a last resort when no other work is available for someone.
Jeremy Moghtader: No matter whether you’re going to be a farmer or not, as a society we by and large have a lack of understanding and I think in turn then a lack of appreciation sometimes, for the amount of work that it actually takes to take something from a seed to a finished product that is objectively very difficult work. It’s physically demanding work, which can make it a mentally and emotionally demanding work in a wide range of conditions.
So if you’re going to be in a position as an urban planner or as an activist or as a business person, whatever your your focus is, having a real actual sense of the actual physical work that it takes to harvest a pint of cherry tomatoes is important.
Because in the absence of really understanding that, it’s hard to help create systemic- level solutions for things that you’re not really totally aware of.
TS: Farmers are needed, ecologists, biologists, whoever is like exposed to this and is interested going forward from this institution, they can make a difference. An electrical engineer might not know that they want to do this work until they are exposed to it out in some capacity here. it is very important going forward in the next couple of decades with the climate crisis that multifunctional land use is going to be needed because places will lack water, we will need to grow food in places that we might not have before.
If you have local food growing that will increase resiliency in that area.
JM: We grow 99% of our lettuce in the United States and Arizona and California. Lettuce has 96% water by volume and we just ship that water that they don’t really have much of all over the rest of the country for our consumption.
So thinking about how the systems there can be more water-efficient, but also how places with water can expand and increase their crop production windows. And because so much of our agricultural production is out of sight out of mind and is done by folks who are, you know to be direct, black and brown folks in the United states, migrant labor, and folks that are not necessarily integrated into the main economic flows of our societal footprint — like we were just looking at something last night at one of our meetings: Statistics from the USDA that you know 2% of farm ownership in the United states is by Hispanic farmers and 80% of the labor is Hispanic, right — so those inequities in that kind of space mean that we are very as a society disconnected from the realities of what’s happening in our food production system.
And not that picking a quart of cherry tomatoes at the farm is going break down all of that for you, but it serves as an entry point for having conversations, it serves as an entry point for you understanding a little bit, even if it’s just opening conversation of a taste of what it’s like to do some of that work, which I think can help ground your understanding in what’s actually happening when you go to the grocery store and you pick up a bunch of chard and you’re like oh there’s this thing and it costs $3. There’s a lot of things that happened and a lot of human beings that were involved in that and you know it’s important for us as a society to think about the welfare and well-being of all of the humans and of the environment that’s been impacted by that production and moving those crops from farm to market.
We worked with some graduate classes and undergraduate classes to help and a committee that we formed on our own team to evaluate our carbon footprint, and then to look at what mitigation strategies we have for those possible options, and synergistically came up with some ideas around agrophotovoltaics, which is the concept of putting photovoltaic, like electrical-generating panels, over the top of crops. And that work that we initally did has advanced to the point where we have collaborators in the College of Engineering and in SEAS and other places to say can we look at how to co-optimize crop production with energy production because right now in the state of Michigan there’s about 90,000 acres of photovoltaic in the queue, which is when folks tell the regulatory agencies like ‘Hey we want to build this to meet our power supply needs, and we want to do it in this clean carbon neutral way,’ most of that is going to end up on level flat land. Most of the level flat land that we have is farmland, so the vast majority of that will be sited to occur on farmland.
So the question is does, that have to be a zero sum game, or can we do that in a cooptimized way where the shading from the panels can benefit certain crops like lettuce. We could use real time control systems to increase or decrease shade based on crop stress. there are people messing around with this around the country but we have a lot of expertise here in in control systems optimization here at U of M, so those faculty members in the College of Engineering are able to bring together their knowledge base with our knowledge base around plants and how to grow plants, and to create something synergistic that we hope has not only a research and teaching impact but a demonstration impact.
People were like “that’s really cool but I’d want to see it to believe it,” right. And so we’re like OK let let’s figure out how to A do research on it and B make the campus farm carbon-neutral and C make it so that you can see it, and then we can see how to make this not a zero sum game.
And that has implications, going back to your like climate refugees and water issues, that kind of shading and co- optimization could help decrease water stress and water-use issues and grant processing increase water use efficiency. Those are all parts of the research questions that will be being asked.
TS: It’s not just about the physical things that we do there. It’s about the overall understanding of the issues and the possibilities in the sector and in the wider world, and I think that sort of multi-faceted, multidisciplinary thought process does not come naturally in a lot of just academic settings.
JM: the campus farm at U of M started was started by students who are interested in the intersection of food systems and society and ecology, and I think that intersection of what we eat, who has access to it, how we produce it, affects everything from personal health to the economy to the environment to public health. It’s critical that people who are in all of those fields have input in and agency and expertise id how to evolve those systems to be more just, sustainable, equitable, and healthy, right?
And so U-M has some of the top programs in many of those fields that I just listedWhy wouldn’t we have any academic or any student or any institution that wish to bring positive impacts to bear on those issues participating in that space? So it doesn’t seem like a thing to not do.
As a living/learning lab we are trying to kind of integrate some operations components with some education and impact components, right. So the Farm Stand is is doing a great job of that on a a multi functional way that I’ll I’ll explain. So we are increasing food access on campus and having food grown by students for students on campus. The students receive a 30% discount, basically a wholesale price. But in addition to that The farm stand serves as this amazing engagement platform, right?
So you’ve got this beautiful, attractive, delicious produce like out on display. We can give people samples we’ve got trivial wheels and people learning about the food systems and that goes to your question about you know what’s our impact. with justice and equity. Think: we have a group of a huge student body here and the more educated and knowledgeable they are about some of the things we’re talking about around that space means that they can carry those perspectives forward into whatever work they do in their lives, personal and professional.
Thirdly, 25% of the revenue from the sales of farmstand go into a fund that UMSFP uses to make mini grants for food equity and access work on campus.
TS: Small-scale farm farming and food resiliency are what we’re striving for, but it comes down to a very large systematic change that needs to happen throughout the country, because it’s about people being seen farming as profitable and also a sustainably and sustainable job for living comfortably and actually having agency over what they do.
JM: even people who are choosing farming as an avocation, and many of them are college-educated and doing it by choice, they still experience a lot of challenge in successfully launching a farm business in acquiring the capital that they need to do that, and doing it in a way where they don’t feel burned out, and where they — and this is where the rubber meets the road — are they saving for retirement. Can they put their kids through college?
I know a lot of small diverse farmers that are not reaping the societal benefits — even as an owner-operator of a farm — that doesn’t mean that they’re like accruing the resources they need to be fully financially stable. and I think we often ask the question about why diversified, local ecologically-grown produce is really expensive — I think it’s very fair to ask the question: Why is other produce so cheap?
Isn’t that local ecological produce produce elitist? Isn’t the price point too high? My answers to those questions when they come up, and they come up all the time in class, they come up with anyone who comes and talks to us at the farm often: It’s like, we can’t balance our full set of social inequities on the backs of diversified small-scale farmers. It’s not a big enough balancing point, right?
What we need is an economic system in the United States that allows people to have enough resources, and to have enough financial gain to be able to purchase produce at a price point that includes healthy, ecological, and just food system, right?
And so that, getting back to Talya’s point, there’s a lot of policy levers in there, you know? What kind of programs do we have to help farm workers become farm business owners, right? We have a very large federal food and agricultural policy but most of that is being directed at price supports — subsidies for large commodity crops which ironically we turn into soda that gives us diabetes, right?
So, I think, as a nation we have a reckoning to deal with where we’re directing our resources and support, and until we address those things, both at the grassroots level but at the larger policy level, people who are choosing this avocation are going to continue to struggle against those bigger systemic issues.
TS: I didn’t know where to take my environment degree at first. But combined with my experience at the farm and over the years taking courses that were around not just Urban Development but like economic development and justice issues and land use and all of those like culminated together and having that practical and hands-on connection to food systems through my experience at the campus farm was really helpful in knowing what I wanted to do and bring to the table going forward.
JM: If we want the sons and daughters of farmers to get to grow up to be teachers and doctors and lawyers and plumbers and carpenters then we need a mechanism for the sons and daughters of doctors and teachers and helpers and plumbers to be able to become farmers and to find farming as an intentional-choice vocation. that’s the difference about like a lot of that other stuff we’re talking about — like economic and social empowerment to the point where people get to make choices about the kinds of things they want to do and not do, and I think as a society that is a goal that we should continue to foster. Because that’s good and healthy for people.
DH: Wow, did I get schooled… I thought I was just going to Green Acres for the afternoon. Imagine talking to Mr. Haney about photovoltaics. Learning from Jeremy and Talya will get a person thinking about the world – and the grocery store — in a whole new way. I’ve packaged this podcast with a story about Jeremy’s career by Jeff Bleiler, who writes for the University Record. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. All right, thanks for listening, and as always, Go Blue.
Living learning lab
If any students tell Jeremy Moghtader their dog ate their homework, he’s likely to understand.
He’d prefer, however, to hear that another student ate it instead.
As the program manager for the Campus Farm for the past six years, Moghtader is responsible for a farm where students plan, plant, grow, and harvest fresh produce to sell to Michigan Dining, donate to the Maize & Blue Cupboard and offer for sale at the Farm Stand.
A living learning lab for sustainable food systems work built around principles of food grown by students for students, the Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens is an ideal home for Moghtader.
His maternal grandparents owned and operated a sheep farm in Charlotte, Mich., and though neither of his parents was a farmer, his future and passion appeared sealed on that farm.
“My dad is from Iran, grew up in a very urban environment in Tehran, and moved here in his late 20s. My mom grew up on a farm but went to college and became a teacher and social worker,” he says.
“My grandparents’ farm was a working farm when I was a kid, and I think there’s no doubt about the fact that those experiences were fundamentally important to what I care about and what I do.”
Majoring in economics at U-M, Moghtader began taking more natural resources classes at what was then the School of Natural Resources and Environment. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, he served in Americorps for a year in Washington state, and there was exposed to Evergreen State College’s instructional campus farm.
“It was a very inspiring place to see this blend of farming and education in an academic setting,” he says. “It lodged in my heart this idea of what I wanted to do with my life.”
He then went to graduate school at the School for Environment and Sustainability to further explore his interest in the ecology of agricultural systems.
Moghtader spent 12 years as farm manager and director of programs for Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm, where he helped launch an organic farmer training program.
During that time he remained in Ann Arbor, helping found several local food systems-related organizations, so when the opportunity arose to become the first program manager of the Campus Farm he was excited about the opportunities it presented. The decision to come was easy.
“My work in food systems and food production started to blossom when I was in graduate school (at SEAS) and trying to think about and understand how food systems sit at this nexus between how we as a species gain our sustenance and what the impacts of those systems are on human health, the health of the environment, and our economic systems,” he says.
“Food systems are intersectional with these core questions as a society and a species for how we sustain ourselves now and in the future. That’s a strong anchor point for me moving forward.”
Just keep growing
The Campus Farm is an ideal playground. One of the first successes for Moghtader was helping the students navigate the application process for and obtain a U.S. Department of Agriculture Good Agricultural Practices food safety certification.
That opened the door to a strong partnership selling Campus Farm-grown produce to Michigan Dining and, in Moghtader’s words, “really kickstarted the conveyer belt allowing students to accomplish their founding vision of growing food for other students and to invest the revenue from that into growing even more food for more students.”
Moghtader said the work is year-round. The Campus Farm has four passive-solar hoop houses totaling about 12,000 square feet that allow for the growth of spinach, arugula, kale, and early and late-season lettuce through the winter.
It also grows all the vegetable, flower, and herb transplants for the Matthaei-Nichols Kitchen Favorites Plant Sale, where people can get plant starts for their own gardens. In addition, this past spring the farm grew 14,000 tomato transplants in collaboration with Keep Growing Detroit for distribution in that organization’s Garden Resource Program, which supports more than 2,000 urban and community gardens in the city.
Bring it in
Harvest season kept students and staff busy throughout the fall, Moghtader says.“We have eight weeks of really nice outdoor weather that you can count on in any academic year. So as a primarily outdoor farm, a lot of action gets packed into those weeks,” he says. “The crop plan is structured to maximize food availability when Dining has the most eaters and the Farm Stand has the most customers, so we try to create this tidal wave of produce that stays at a pretty high output until the snow flies.”
Moghtader practices his craft at home, too, and ramped that up during the COVID-19 pandemic. His family planted blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, adding more perennials to the fruit trees they already had.
“There’s a pure joy that happens in the yard when my kids are picking abundant raspberries off these plants we planted together or harvesting winter squash,” he says. “That brings all this genuine joy. There’s real power in that participation in the food system as not just an eater but as a producer and an eater that I think is also true at the Campus Farm.”
When not tending to their garden, Moghtader and his family enjoy taking backpacking trips around the Great Lakes, especially Lake Michigan.
“It’s a literally wondrous place,” he says.
While growing produce and fostering student leadership are at the heart of his position with the Campus Farm, Moghtader also is motivated by a deeper passion.
“One of my strongest interests is social, economic, and racial justice. Food touches on those things in such a strong way,” he says. “There is no sustainability without equity and justice. Everyone wants and deserves access to good, healthy, sustainable food, and the means to acquire it.”