Fall Research Symposium Spotlight: Big Hill Farm Summer Internship with Audrey Ochtrup-DeKeyrel, Josie Kleckner, and Emily Gerencer

Posted on October 22nd, 2021 by

Left to right: Emily Gerencer ('23), Josie Kleckner ('23), and Audrey Ochtrup-DeKeyrel ('22)

At this year’s Fall Research Symposium, Audrey Ochtrup-DeKeyrel (’22), Josie Kleckner (’23), and Emily Gerencer (’23) presented on their internship at Big Hill Farm (BHF) last summer. As interns, they conducted hands-on research through planting, harvesting, investigating, managing distribution, and developing best practices for the farm moving forward.

Started as a senior seminar project by Eliza Swedenborg (’09) and Cat Wiechmann (’09) in 2009, BHF is an on-campus student-run farm managed by the student organization of the same name. Founded in 2019, the BHF club allows students to volunteer and learn together on the farm. Ochtrup-DeKeyrel is this year’s BHF co-president, and Kleckner and Gerencer both hold board positions.

Since many students leave campus over summer break, BHF depends on student interns to keep the farm producing during the summer. In exchange, interns get to learn more about sustainable agriculture. Sustainable practices at BHF include crop rotation, soil regeneration, no pesticide use, and little to no tilling, practices which “it is important to remember have roots in indigenous practices,” said Ochtrup-DeKeyrel.

Produce from the farm is sold to the Gustavus Marketplace, where it is used to feed summer staff, students, and campers. Part of the student interns’ job is to plant, weed, harvest, and transport produce to the Marketplace. Through the work of Ochtrup-DeKeyrel, Kleckner, and Gerencer, the farm produced 1,500 lbs of produce this summer — the farm’s biggest yield to date.

Left: Kleckner, Gerencer, and Ochtrup-DeKeyrel present their Big Hill Farm internship at the Fall Research Symposium. Photo: Carley Swanson-Garro. Right: Tomatoes from BHF delivered to the Gustavus Marketplace and a view of BHF Photo: Emily Gerencer

 

The research aspect of this internship was hands-on. For example, the team experimented with using the greenhouse in Nobel to grow tomatoes. Completed last year, the greenhouse was intended for cold-weather use, so the student interns weren’t sure if temperatures would be too hot for the tomato plants to succeed. But the tomatoes ended up thriving in the heat, offering a way to expand the farm’s production.

Another growing solution the team helped implement was a new irrigation system. Previously, plants were watered through a combination of hand watering and sprinklers. This summer, the interns were able to use a drip line in combination with the sprinkler system, allowing interns and volunteers to divest time used for hand watering into other farm maintenance practices such as planting or weeding.

Ochtrup-DeKeyrel, Kleckner, and Gerencer also had the opportunity to research best-practice farming solutions at Little Big Sky Farm. Located in Henderson, Minnesota, Little Big Sky delivers produce weekly to Nicollet county and the Twin Cities. Under the mentorship of Dan and Jenny Kapernick at Little Big Sky, the interns “learned how sustainable we can be [at BHF] while sustaining or increasing our output with as little input as possible,” said Kleckner.

Using the knowledge gained at Little Big Sky, the interns were able to problem-solve sustainable solutions at Big Hill Farm this summer. One challenge the team tackled was keeping cutworms from eating plants and produce. Plants are often treated with herbicides to prevent cutworm damage, but because this practice harms the ecosystem, the interns constructed plant collars out of different materials. They experimented with PVC pipe, cardboard, and even Red Solo cups. The cardboard proved to be the most effective.

One farming practice from Little Big Sky the interns want to see implemented at BHF in the future is using landscape tarp to cut down on the need to weed. By burning holes in the tarp, plants can get the light they need to grow, but the weeds around them will die from lack of sun.

 

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