Monmouth College biology professor Eric Engstrom (far right) is overseeing a student crew this summer at the Educational Farm and Garden that includes (from left) Linsey Turner, Jacob Duncan, Luke Mulcrone, and Xavion York. Not pictured is Gabriela Peterson
MONMOUTH, ILLINOIS (June 10, 2022) — Creativity in the workplace is something typically associated with a profession related to the fine arts, but Monmouth College biology professor Eric Engstrom points out that creativity is also part of daily life in agriculture.
This summer, Engstrom is again in charge of a five-student crew working at the College's Educational Farm and Garden — a diverse group majoring in subjects from history to health science and English to political science.
"A farm is something you create, and no farm is like any other," said Engstrom. "They're all unique to the special circumstances — the environment, what you grow, what you have at your disposal. That's the fun of this type of farming. . . Obviously, it's hard work out here. We're going to be out here on some very hot days. It's demanding physical work, but I want it to also be challenging, creative work. Everybody has some task that they can have a strong sense of ownership."
The five Monmouth students on the crew are Jacob Duncan ('22) of Aledo, Illinois; Luke Mulcrone ('23) of Chicago; Gabriela Peterson ('23) of Southwick, Massachusetts; Linsey Turner ('23) of Elburn, Illinois; and Xavion York ('24) of Pablo Seco, Trinidad, and Tobago.
"I have enough to do for ten students out here," said Engstrom of the farm, which is located three blocks east of campus. The garden is on East Broadway, next to the College's Founders Village residence halls.
Some of the students have experience working in the dirt, such as York, who has farming and gardening experience through his family's orchard.
"I wanted to keep busy this summer and keep physically active," said York, whose helps manage the herbs.
Turner, who is using the summer experience for credit toward her global public-health minor, said, "I'm very excited for the farmers market aspect of it and how the farm and garden will interact with the community."
The blueberry specialists
Engstrom said he and his crew have adopted a new approach this summer, trying to do a few things very well rather than spreading themselves too thin over a number of different projects. That starts with blueberries.
"We're going to try to get a few things into really good shape," he said. "We're really going to try and make these blueberries work for us. We have so many rows of blueberry bushes. In previous years, we haven't managed to get all of the crop in. Some of it has just never been harvested."
That's despite holding community U-pick days, selling the berries at local farmers markets, and supplying Cornucopia Natural Market and Deli in Galesburg.
We're going to construct a solar-powered food dehydrator," said Engstrom. "Then we can start collecting and drying some of these blueberries so we don't have to wait for the sale opportunities. . . We're the blueberry specialists. No one else in town is selling blueberries. We've got a lot, and we have never left the market with any of the blueberries that we brought out. We've always sold out."
Engstrom guessed that the general public would be able to visit the Educational Farm for U-pick days for blueberries by the third week of June. Raspberries might debut in early July, with another wave in the fall.
Born on the farm
Another major area of focus for the crew are the farm's chickens. Mulcrone has been assigned the task.
"We're hoping that this is the first summer where our chickens will do what chickens do and they'll raise their own chicks for us, so we'll start increasing our flock from the breeds that we have here," said Engstrom. "That's never happened here before. We've always had to order our chicks through the mail or get them from a local source."
Engstrom said new asparagus will "fill in the gaps of what's petered out from six, seven, eight years ago. . . And this is the summer we'll finally get the corn, the cowpeas and squash all working together in the same field. All of these things become chicken feed, and the squash goes to the [College] cafeteria."
That chicken-feed dynamic is part of what makes working at the farm such an interesting and enlightening experience, said Duncan, who is the veteran of the crew, with two summers under his belt.
"I enjoy learning about how the natural world interacts with each other — how things decompose and how things enrich the soil, how plants need certain things to grow," he said. "I don't think I ever realized just how much everything outside is a living thing."
That type of understanding is something Engstrom said goes hand-in-hand with working at the Educational Farm and Garden — it's far more than simply manual labor.
"This is a marvelous experience and learning opportunity for the students," he said. "They learn applied ecology, thinking about various things, such as the soil. They run the market, so there's a little business opportunity. The students go out and sell the produce and interact with the community. We're hoping to have some tours out here, and I'm hoping the students will take a large hand in that, too — guiding people around, explaining 'the why' for doing the things we do. I try to make it a very intellectually stimulating work experience for the students."
That experience has evolved from the early days of the farm more than a decade ago.
"Every year, it's better out here," said Engstrom. "Every year, we're getting a little healthier out here. Ecologically, the soil's getting better every year. We're learning more about how and when to plant things. It's night and day how we take care of these chickens today from how we were doing it just a year ago. We've learned a lot and made a lot of improvements."