By: Rachel Miller
Eating with a sustainable mindset is about choosing foods that are both healthy for our bodies and our environment. Determining whether a food is sustainable begins with understanding the production of that food and whether the farming practices used in its production have minimal impact on the environment. The University of Maryland (UMD) College Park has established an active working relationship with the Menus of Change initiative and a Sustainable Food Action Plan. Both entities are used in UMD Dining Services to increase sustainable food availability on campus and ensure that resources used today will remain available in the future.
My partner, Sammie, and I began our first week of this rotation developing content to market a variety of vegetables grown on the Terp Farm throughout the year. I learned how to incorporate sustainably sourced, healthy food options into UMD’s dining menus. We developed different forms of signage to promote the newly featured foods and the recipes in which they would be found. I learned how to incorporate healthy options and sustainable sources into dining menus using signage. This content serves two purposes; it encourages chefs to become more comfortable with ingredients that are new or unfamiliar to them, and it educates students on these ingredients. In addition to creating content, such as posters, to highlight certain ingredients, we also gathered a few recipes for each ingredient that could be featured in the weekly cycle menu. Ideally, these recipes will spark creativity and encourage chefs to utilize new vegetables, especially when they are in season. This resource highlights one farm vegetable per month. We created content for okra, garlic, tongue of fire beans, parsnip, snow peas, and spring brassicas (i.e. white salad turnips, napa cabbage, purple/green daikons). From doing this activity, I gained more insight into the benefits of buying local, seasonal produce and how it can be aligned with menus to emphasize fresh foods during peak growing season.
Having learned how to bring the “farm to table,” Sammie and I were able to get our hands dirty on the Terp Farm itself. In doing so, we discovered how the Terp Farm uses farming practices that have a minimal impact on the environment. During our time at the farm, we had the opportunity to plant spring salad mix in one of the three green houses, given that it was still winter! To begin our seeding process, we first used a broad fork to loosen the soil. Then we used a tractor native to Italy, known as the BCS tractor, with a power harrow attachment to further prepare the seedbed. This tool helps to preserve soil structure by not mixing layers and reduces weed growth. Following the BCS tractor, we used a rake to flatten the bed surface and even out all four beds. Then we used a tool to create rows of six to lay seed. Finally, we used a seeder to plant the salad mix. It was so interesting seeing how much goes into to planting only four rows of crops in a greenhouse. We also heard about the work that goes into maintaining the two acres of land the Terp Farm will cultivate to grow additional produce for UMD’s dining halls.
Maintaining the land in the greenhouse is far less challenging than maintaining the two acres outside. Guy, the farmer, shared with us how he sustainably maintains the land so when it comes time to plant in the spring, the soil is rich with nutrients and ready to be used. Cover crops are a form of sustainable soil maintenance allowing recycling of nutrients. Instead of keeping the fields fallow (unsown or inactive) for a period, cover crops are planted to recycle the nitrogen in the atmosphere and turn it into soil nitrogen which can then be used by plants. If a farmer chose not to use cover crops, then the soil would erode and the nitrogen in the soil would risk polluting water. With a cover crop keeping the soil fertile and nutrient rich, there is no risk for erosion. Guy likes to plant legumes and rye as cover crops. Legumes especially, play a major part in nitrogen conversion, allowing 30 to 60 percent of the nitrogen it converts to be used by plants following its removal. This is just one example of a sustainable farming practice that we were able to see in action during our rotation.
We were not at the farm long enough to see the harvest of our salad mix, but we did get to taste some that was planted prior to our visit to the farm. Sammie and I loved tasting the different leaves as Guy explained the flavor profile to us using his culinary background. I think the future of the Terp Farm is looking very bright. Programs like Menus of Change and the Sustainable Food Action Plan are valuable tools for universities and restaurants across the country to increase sustainable food offerings. By implementing these programs into their food service systems, they can make positive changes for today and spread the importance of sustainable farming for the future of food and health for generations to come.