Success stories can be told many ways.
ACRES’ success story is first shared through the soil, then it roots out into the community and beyond.
University of Wyoming students have tilled, toiled and planted on the small farm at Laramie for nearly 10 years.
“Looking back through all the years that different students engaged in ACRES, there is a whole series of different failures and successes — mostly successes — for the direction of the farm,” said Urszula Norton, a UW professor and ACRES’ faculty adviser. “It’s a very good, rewarding process for everybody.”
Student farms aren’t uncommon, but what’s made ACRES — which stands for Agricultural Community Resources for Everyday Sustainability — unique in its organization and success has been that both are driven almost solely by students, Norton said.
“There are some schools like (Montana State University) Bozeman and Utah State (University) — they have farms that were created by departments or universities and then students come on board,” she said. “This is sort of a grassroots initiative that was driven by students for the pure purpose of education.”
It’s an education that’s shaped by more than the farm, though. Students also learn from one another, Norton said.
“Instead of food for thought, they bring thought for food,” she said. “Everybody comes with a different experience.”
“You have the freedom to share your experiences with people,” intern Rael Otuya added.
That’s exactly what she did with Justin Ockinga, this summer’s farm manager.
“We were working and she said, ‘Let’s double-dig all these beds.’”
Ockinga agreed, and began to dig in. What he found out, though, was that double digging was different from what he thought.
“Double-digging means pretty much restoring the structure of the soil by loosening up the substructure of the soil,” Otuya explained. “The clay is going to be moved around a little bit, so the water will penetrate through. That way, the plants can actually set the root and grow better.
“Here, the soil is the perfect candidate for the same thing (as in Kenya).”
It’s teaching moments like this that Ockinga said will help him be successful at ACRES and beyond.
“Walking away from this, I feel like I could almost walk into any farm and say, ‘What are your problems? What are you guys facing? What’s your direction?’ And I would know what to do,” he said.
Ockinga wouldn’t be the first UW student to take his ACRES experience and turn it into a future career. Norton said many students have done just that over the years.
This summer, former ACRES manager Perry Baptista worked as an intern for a company designing and managing small-scale farms in Colorado.
“My past experience with ACRES played a big part in getting my current summer job,” Baptista wrote in an email. “This company is very similar to ACRES, but most of our students go on to get internships in a large variety of fields after their ACRES experience.”
But ACRES has done more than just influence the student and other volunteers who till its soil. The farm is at the center of multiple community partnerships, including a composting partnership with local restaurants, growing pumpkins for Altitude Chophouse and Brewery and inviting students from a variety of academic backgrounds to perform research on the farm.
“It seems like when we get people involved that have an interest, there are a whole lot of things that can happen,” ACRES volunteer and UW student Mike Curran said.
Others outside of Laramie are beginning to notice the many success stories behind the ACRES model.
Multiple faculty members from other universities peppered ACRES volunteers with questions at the Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden conference in Delaware earlier this summer, wanting to know how their schools could start a similar student farm.
“ACRES’ model is unique in its complete and total involvement of both students and the community at every level of the organization,” Baptista wrote. “ACRES is an example of how successful a student farm can be in spite of (or, in fact, because of) limited resources and a transient student workforce when supported by an equally interested community.
“By highlighting these elements, we gave those hoping to start their own student farm an easily replicable model and positive outlook,” she added. ❖
Peter Bauman is the assistant editor for the Laramie Boomerang.