When students and faculty walk past the rodeo grounds, a sign will come into view: the Student Experimental Farm, also known as the SEF.
What could that mean? A farm where they experiment on students?
Not quite. Tucked away past the rodeo grounds resides a two-acre plot of land reserved for experimentation and exploration by students. On any given Sunday from approximately 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., there are around 20 students tending to their gardens, working on their projects or maintaining the area.
Student Experimental Farm
However, this area was not always a place for students to work on their individual projects. What it is now is a far cry from the SEF’s origins.
After a group of Cal Poly graduates joined the Peace Corps to teach people in impoverished countries about the benefits of agriculture, they learned of a system that had no waste or pesticide use. Impressed by the method, two students returned to Cal Poly to implement the program in the farm area.
However, funding for the project was cut in the 2000s. It then became the site for a program called ADAPT, which was dedicated to training soldiers headed to Afghanistan and teaching them sustainable farming practices to ensure food security and economic development.
Physics associate professor Pete Schwartz stumbled upon the farm by chance back in 2014. In pursuit of a location for his potential solar kitchen, he found a home for his project in the farm area which would soon be renamed SEF.
When students caught wind of this project, some immediately wanted to be involved and work on their own projects as well. For the past few years, Schwartz has been working with the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences to facilitate students’ projects at the farm.
“My role is to kind of find a way so that students can do their projects,” Schwartz said. “I communicate with risk management and projects so it really boils down to making sure the university feels safe with the project.”
Students can submit a project proposal and once approved by Schwartz, they can begin working.
Now, the SEF is self-sustaining with no funding from the university. The different clubs with projects at the farm receive funding as on-campus organizations from Associated Student, Inc. (ASI), but individuals must cover their own costs.
One of the projects operated by Cal Poly’s aquaponics club, Polyponics, has combined techniques of growing plants without soil (hydroponics) with fish farming (aquaculture) that creates a self-sustaining relationship between fish and plants. Not only is aquaponics self-sustaining, but it also uses approximately 90 percent less water than conventional farming methods.
Solar cooking kitchen
Schwartz’s interest in sustainability and renewable energy for developing countries is what motivated his solar cooking kitchen. Students are working to build a kitchen powered by solar concentrators which use all the energy generated from the solar panels. There are also biomass cookstoves that can be heated by burning wood, crop residue and animal dung. The kitchen also has photovoltaic-electric (PVE) cookers that convert solar energy into direct current electricity.
Real Food Collaborative
The club, whose food-selling booth can occasionally be seen on Dexter Lawn, has created its own holistic community garden.
Direct Current (DC) House
With direct current electricity, energy would be generated directly from the farm through renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind power. This will provide access to electricity not only on the farm, but also to off-the-grid homes in rural areas, secluded islands or geographically hard to reach areas. With this technology, the DC house system would allow grid-connected houses to use alternating current electricity to power home appliances and DC electricity to power lighting and USB devices.
Computer engineering alumnus Max Kellogg took over the chicken coop last year, complete with nine hens, one rooster and eight chicks. Kellogg tends to his chickens on a daily basis to ensure they are healthy and safe. He has taken down observations on the hierarchy of chickens and as a bonus, was able to enjoy fresh farm eggs every morning.
“I’m basically a vegan for the most part because with other meats and dairy, I don’t know where it’s coming from,” Kellogg said. “But here, I know where the eggs come from and I know the animals who created them lived a good life.”
The SEF received two sheep in June 2016. The animals clean up dead plants and eat weeds to open up more room for future gardens and projects.
Because the SEF receives no funding as a whole, all students who are involved are working toward a common goal, agricultural and environmental science alumnus
Alexis Montgomery said.
“The main focus is to have a space for student projects relating to sustainability,” Montgomery said. “There is also an aspect of collaboration and community, which helps to connect different student projects.”
The SEF is not limited to just projects; students have individual gardens as well.
Environmental engineering alumnus Maxwell Muscarella created an organic vegetable and flower garden.
“The experimental farm is just a resource for people who want to grow something,” Muscarella said. “I think the SEF has grown pretty significantly, more embodiment of some sort of experiment of interdisciplinary sustainability.”
According to Schwartz, the space is “sinfully underutilized,” which is why he wants more students to become involved. Additionally, Schwartz teaches an appropriate technology class, which explores the causes of poverty and the possible technical advances that he explored through the solar cooking kitchen.
Religious studies associate professor Stephen Lloyd-Moffet also makes use of the farm. Lloyd- Moffet teaches a religion and wine class that discusses how wine can connect people with nature. He didn’t just want to lecture his students about that, he wanted to show them.
Since the farm has grown exponentially in the past few years, students are looking toward expanding by developing a club and recruiting more
“We are attempting to develop some of the overgrown land so that we can lower the activation barrier for those to get involved and get started on their own garden,” Muscarella said.
While the farm may be limited in space, it is in no way limited in creativity. The possibilities are virtually endless.