Barry McNamara  |  Published July 30, 2019

Harvesting Rewards

Garden Crew learns about sustainable agriculture, how to market their crops during summer working at College’s garden and farm.
Jacob Duncan, left, and Jacie Reis get their hands dirty while working at Market Farm on a sunny July day.
Jacob Duncan, left, and Jacie Reis get their hands dirty while working at Market Farm on a sunny July day.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Coming around a bend down the gravel lane at the Monmouth College Market Farm, a shade-covered green hammock stretched invitingly between a pair of tree trunks.

But on this gorgeous summer morning, the hammock remained empty – there was still much work to be done.

Jacob Duncan ’22 of Aledo, Ill., manned a tractor on the south side of the 6.7-acre farm, which is about three blocks east of campus. On the north side, Anna Brown ’20 tended to a bumper crop of blueberries.

All four students in this summer’s Garden Crew were new to the experience. They began work in May and will officially be done on Aug. 2. Brown and Duncan worked the entire summer, while Jacie Reis ’20 of La Porte, Texas, and Cynthia Johnson ’22 of Conroe, Texas, were also part of the crew.

Rewarding work

“I definitely know a lot more about sustainability and agriculture,” said Duncan. “I no longer have any frets about going into the dirt and digging with my hands.”

Duncan said he’s come away with a new appreciation for working with a hoe.

“To see an area full of weeds can look insurmountable, but to put in the work and see those weeds go down is very visually rewarding,” he said.

That feeling of accomplishment is something that Duncan, who is studying English, will take with him.

“If you have no gripes about being out in the sun all day, this is the type of work where you feel better about yourself when the day is done,” he said.

His co-worker agreed.

“I have an interest in sustainability, and I’d done some volunteer work with the garden (which is located just east of the College’s Founders Village apartments),” said Brown, a history and philosophy major who hopes to one day start her own small garden. “Personally, I just enjoy it, and I do find it rewarding, particularly our little herb garden, which I’ve pretty much taken claim to. We grow sage, lavender, rosemary and lots of mints.”

Like a box of chocolates

Garden Crew members never know what produce they’re going to get from year to year.

“It’s been a mixed bag this summer,” said English professor Craig Watson, who supervises the summer crew along with biology professor Eric Engstrom. “Most of the Japanese beetles froze or drowned, so our blueberry harvest has been exceptional. Craft Butcher and Deli on Seminary in Galesburg has featured our blueberries for weeks now. But strawberries were submerged half their fruit life, and raspberries hit a wall of heat and fried early.”

The growing season started with one of the wettest springs on record. The over-saturation left the farm looking “like a rice paddy,” said Brown.

Summer’s heat and humidity took full effect near the end of June, and although the air was moist, it rarely rained, with one of the driest months of July on record. Included in July were several days with a dangerous heat index.

Watson said several of the farm’s warm-weather direct-seed crops never germinated.

“We had to transplant seedlings instead – a procedure several other alternative farms in the area had to follow, as well,” he said. “We grew field corn, open-pollinated sweet corn and tried buckwheat as a bee attractor and cover crop experiment.”

Another bee attractor – or, more specifically, bee gatherer – was Monmouth educational studies professor Craig Vivian, who has been the farm and garden’s beekeeper throughout the past decade.

“We have five new beehives, thanks to Craig Vivian’s long drives to Iowa,” said Watson.

Passing the torch

Watson said the student crew had other responsibilities between tending to the crops.

“They peddled berries and jam at the local farmers market and door-to-door on campus, and we fielded visits from the Golden Scots (Monmouth alumni), Lux program students (who were studying how to think theologically about hunger) and Knox College’s high tunnel gardeners,” he said.

Watson said the Garden Crew has ably passed the torch to the next caregivers of the land.

“When our Garden Club students return to campus in a few weeks, they will see we have well-managed plots at the garden and farm, a new sign and an updated log and Facebook page,” he said.

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