TC3 farm to bistro a unique program

Jorge Ferrabone harvests leafy greens back in September, just as the harvest season was getting started. Now that the weather is turning colder the farm will start to prepare for the spring planting season.
Jorge Ferrabone harvests leafy greens back in September, just as the harvest season was getting started. Now that the weather is turning colder the farm will start to prepare for the spring planting season.
Jamie Swinnerton

As the farm-to-table movement has seen significant growth across the United States and internationally, the local education scene has been creating and adapting a program to prepare the future employees of this sustainable, local pipeline. Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) has a well-known local restaurant, Coltivare, where culinary and hospitality students get hands-on training in their field. What you may not know as much about is the farm the college has where the farm-to-bistro mission actually starts. This unique program prepares students by educating them on all aspects of the process. The farm program is linked directly to the culinary program, which is linked directly to the hospitality program.

After breaking ground in the spring of 2014, the Sustainable Farming and Food Systems program at TC3 had its first students the fall of the same year, launching at the same time as the school’s culinary arts program. The two programs have worked closely ever since. It’s not uncommon for culinary students to include a class on the farm in their schedule. Farm internships (which can be taken for the fall, spring, or summer semesters) can be taken by anyone. Todd McLane, the farm manager and program director, said he has had students from a variety of studies, including nursing, take a course on the farm.

“We’ve literally been building this farm from the ground up,” McLane said, standing in the barn situated next to the farm. “This was an existing barn but we totally retrofitted it for our own needs.”

An old hay field was converted into what is now a vegetable field where the students, under McLane’s direction, harvest over 150 different varieties of vegetables. Before that first semester with students, McLane said his summer consisted of him and a rototiller, planting an array of vegetables just so the students could have something to harvest. Now, the program is in full swing and even hoping to expand into fruits and possibly livestock.

While the farm didn’t open until 2014, the idea is a little bit older. McLane has been involved with the local sustainable farming organization the Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming for about 10 years now and sits on its board. Back around 2010, the organization was approached by someone at the college to talk about starting a farming course to offer for credit through TC3. That summer, the practicum was put into action. Students harvested vegetables at McLane’s farm, visited other local farms in the area, and heard presentations by guest lecturers. Their final presentation was a local food celebration by creating an entire dinner menu using locally sourced products. At the final community dinner, then TC3 president Carl Haynes stated to the gathered crowd that it would be great to see this program become a degree someday. Just a few years later, it was.

“Part of our vision was to give students experiences in a working environment,” McLane said. “So, this is a working farm. This isn’t a student-run farm. It’s going to take us a few years but our goal is to make a profit. Same thing with the restaurant, it’s not a student-run restaurant.”

It’s this kind of experience that makes the TC3 farming program unique. McLane is fairly sure that TC3 was the first school in New York State to have a working farm and a working restaurant. The program is only four semesters long and is designed to allow students to apply their degree immediately after finishing the program.

“All of our students who are in the program, they’re involved in all aspects of production here,” McLane said. “We’re very much a human-powered farm. We do have a tractor to do our field prep, but everything else is by hand.”

One of the challenges of the program, for McLane, is that every semester will be about teaching students something different, because each season has different tasks, and each student will start the course with a different background, some with farming experience and some without. McLane said he tries to take a holistic approach to the course, giving a thorough explanation of why the students are doing what they are doing for each day.

Beyond farming, the program teaches students about the entire food system, taking courses on entrepreneurship, accounting, environmental studies, biology, and unique food systems seminars. Not only are they learning to grow their own food, but they’re also learning how to grow and sell it sustainably.

Wrapping up the fall semester, which ends early December, the colder weeks are spent reflecting on what they learned, what worked and what didn’t, and looking ahead to what changes could be made to the course. The students go through a skills assessment to figure out what they could focus on more the next semester.

“My ultimate goal is really to have students see where they fit in the food system beyond consumer,” said McLane. “There’s a lot of things in between growing food and putting food on your plate.”

Each student is required to help out at the TC3 farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which connects locals to the produce grown on the farm. CSA stakeholders pay a seasonal membership and are then given a share of the harvest. McLane said that because the CSA makes up a majority of the sales profits for the farm it is his priority, then the restaurant and farm stand. But the relationship between the farm and the bistro is a strong, amicable one. Their missions are intertwined.

Maggie Caroompas, a current student in the farming program, never expected to end up as a farmer, but when she started volunteering with Vines, a nonprofit organization in Binghamton. She started working on an urban farm helping to give low-income families access to healthy and affordable produce. She discovered the program at TC3 through her mom, a professor at TC3.

“I have no prior experience working on a farm so this was the perfect way for me to get into it because you have other people who come with various backgrounds,” she said. “So, other people who may have worked on a farm before, or other people like me who haven’t done anything.”

Caroompas echoed what her teacher, McLane, said about the holistic approach to the class. The students aren’t just being told what to harvest or plant, McLane makes sure they understand why they are doing what they are doing.

After she finishes the program Caroompas said she would like to work with a nonprofit organization like Vines, but she’s not really sure where she’ll end up. She’s in conversations with local farms where she might be able to get a job. She’s a hands-on learner, which is part of what made the program appealing to her. She loves being a part of the entire process, from planting the seeds to selling the vegetables, and feeling pride in being involved in the entire process.

“I will see vegetables that we grow on the farm and I’ve never seen them, I’ve never heard of them, and having other people have that same feeling, like ‘Oh wow, there’s so much out there,’ that’s really exciting,” she said.

McLane sees the program as a success if a student learns early on that farming is not something they want to do. It’s a lot of hard work and knowing whether or not they enjoy that before becoming invested is better than discovering that as they try to start their own farm.

For Logan Yarbrough, one of the early graduates of the TC3 farming program, farming was no mystery to him when he started at TC3. After getting out of the army Yarbrough knew he wanted to do something with agriculture and had plans to go to Cornell, but first, he wanted to get some prerequisite classes done at TC3. He was interested in farming, like his family had done, but wasn’t sure what kind of farming he wanted to do. While at TC3 he heard about the new farming program and decided to give it a try.

“What was nice was, I’d worked on vegetable farms and animal farms before, but I still wasn’t sure what kind of farming I wanted to do,” Yarbrough said. “The hands-on stuff taught me that I didn’t want to be a vegetable farmer, at all.”

Through the course, he learned a lot about the science behind vegetable farming, and about sustainable food systems. He used his capstone project to create a business plan for his own farm. Now, Yarbrough is closing his third year on his own goat farm, Blue Spade Farm.

“What I learned in that program is how to treat the land, not to force the land to do what you want it to, you have to go with it,” Yarbrough said. “Goats were what the land was best for.”

Stay tuned for part two of this series, all about the TC3 culinary program.


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