You wouldn't guess it glancing across this season's Ohio tundra, but the first signs of spring are already emerging inside a barn on the edge of the MTSO campus. Several flats, sheltered from the cold, contain the first seedlings of what will soon be a 4-acre farm in the field south of the Kleist Manor Apartments.
The man charged with making this agricultural and educational endeavor a reality is Tadd Petersen, who began his duties as MTSO's manager of farm and food in December. He and Christopher Holt, the assistant manager of farm and food, will oversee both the organic farm and the food service in Dunn Dining Hall.
Through the efforts of Petersen, Holt and others in the MTSO community who will work the farm, the school will come into closer alignment with core values, including its commitment to a just and sustainable world.
Before coming to MTSO, Holt and Petersen worked together at a nonprofit that assists low-income families and individuals returning from incarceration with services including job training. Though Petersen was raised on a family farm, he's nonetheless a little surprised to find himself in this line of work. "When I was a teenager," he said, "I thought my parents were crazy. 'Why do they make me work so hard out here to get this little bit of food?'"
After high school, he spent five years at a factory, working his way up to plant supervisor: "It was good money but I was miserable, so I quit and went to school. I've basically been in school ever since."
At one point Petersen considered missionary work, but eventually he was drawn back to his roots: "Once I started thinking about food, it all led back to what it means to feed people. What does it mean to think of spirituality in a different way than most of the institutionalized church thinks of it?"
"How many churches own land?" he asked. "How many churches could have a farmer and could support their own communities with good food, not just canned food, for the food bank?"
Petersen spent time at Michigan State University's Student Organic Farm, where his calling came into clear focus. "It's amazing the conversations you can have with your peers when you're down in the dirt," he said. "I've had countless conversations about what it means to be a Christian when I was out in the field working with somebody."
The farm at MTSO gives Petersen and Holt the opportunity for plenty of conversations and cultivation. This winter, they're dividing their time between beginning the farm and shopping for the fresh foods they're serving in Dunn Dining Hall. Soon, though, Petersen expects MTSO to be a net exporter, with every fruit and vegetable served in the dining hall harvested just steps away.
In addition to operating a full-scale, diversified vegetable farm, Petersen said MTSO will grow blueberries, blackberries and strawberries, "and we also have wild raspberries in the woods that we'll harvest."
He said two heated, 96-foot-long hoop houses (which are similar to greenhouses) will dramatically enhance the diversity the farm can offer: "We'll have twice as many varieties as we could without them. And the real bonus is having extra-early things that nobody else will have that early." For instance, MTSO's tomatoes will be ripe in May instead of June or July.
Petersen and Holt will need help harvesting all of these crops. While they expect that students and other members of the MTSO community will pitch in, they're also offering four full-time apprenticeships beginning in March. Information is available here.
While Petersen expects to sell some of the farm's yield to restaurants and farmers' market customers, he said the majority of what is grown will be consumed on campus. "Our intention isn't to compete with local farmers," he said. "Our intention is to create a sustainable campus."
Petersen also wants to see fresh produce become more available to those who often can't afford it, though he knows that's not just a matter of sharing the bounty: "The big challenge – and one that I struggle with personally – is that there's this huge barrier for low-income individuals, not only in access but in knowing what to do with their food. That comes down to education."
During his time at the Ridge, he said, it took a while for those unaccustomed to fresh food to learn how tasty it could be, "but after a few weeks, people got comfortable with the idea that, 'Wow, this is really good.'"
For instance, he said, "When most people think of beets, they think of pickled beets that their grandpa ate. But there are so many ways to prepare a beet that are amazing."
Beets will be among the 80 varieties of fruits and vegetables grown, along with such crops as carrots and turnips. What won't be planted at MTSO? Surprisingly, it's the crops you see throughout most of the rest of Ohio, such as corn and soybeans.
"Much of the production for those kinds of things is best for mechanical farming," Petersen said. "I don't know if you've ever threshed wheat by hand before. I've done it once, and I never want to do it again."
Instead, the MTSO farm will focus on crops that can be tended with a more personal touch, an approach Petersen believes aids the educational component of the project.
"It can create this new sense of hope," he said. "When you're able to grow something with your own hands, watch it grow from the seed, I think it changes your perspective. It opens your eyes to what creation means."
"It can help our students think about new ways of doing things within an institution. Hopefully this will affect them in a way that they might want to reproduce somewhere else."