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By Anja Timm
  • Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Horticulture Section
  • Soil and Crop Sciences Section
  • Agriculture

When new safety protocols forced Antonio DiTommaso, professor and chair of the Soil and Crop Sciences Section in the School of Integrative Plant Science, to downsize his field trials this spring, he was left with 1,800 surplus cabbage seedlings.

Instead of sending them to the compost heap, DiTommaso connected with the Homer C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm, in Freeville, New York, managed by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Cornell AES). Thompson Research Farm planted the seedlings and cared for the cabbage plants until they could be harvested and donated.

This season, Cornell faculty, staff and students facilitated the donation of more than 37 tons of food from farms run by Cornell AES to feed families in need.

Much of the produce was grown at Thompson Research Farm, which has worked with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier for 16 years to help combat local food insecurity. This year the farm donated more than 22 tons of farm-fresh food to the organization, including peppers, beets, pumpkins, onions, tomatoes, squash, cabbage and potatoes.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the food bank has seen a 37% increase in food requests.

“Donations from our partners allow us to continue to offer healthy and nutritious options to those who are experiencing food insecurity across the region during a time when they need it most,” said Natasha R. Thompson, president and CEO of the organization.

“The Food Bank of the Southern Tier is grateful for the support we receive from Thompson Research Farm,” Thompson added.

Farm manager Steve McKay said they made additional contributions to the Friendship Donations Network of Ithaca, local school districts and the Cornell Food Pantry.

In the spring, Jennifer Thaler, professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), also provided McKay’s crew with 1,500 pounds of seed potatoes. That effort began when Nick Aflitto, a doctoral student in Thaler’s Toxic Plant Lab, told her that he was concerned about food insecurity in the community. Their research on plant-insect interactions had led to field trials on Thompson Research Farm in the past, and after connecting with McKay, they found an available plot for the potato crop.

Aflitto raised money within the Department of Entomology to supply the seeds. In the fall, Aflitto, Thaler, McKay and Dilmun Hill Student Farm organized two physically distanced gleaning events, where 20 students — including members of Thaler’s insect ecology class — harvested eight tons of potatoes.

Closer to campus, Dilmun Hill Student Farm also had a productive season, despite remaining closed until mid-July and then operating with a skeleton crew of just three student-farmers. They started by harvesting crops like garlic, that had been planted last season, and they received seedling transplants from Blue Heron Farm, certified organic growers near Lodi, New York.

Dilmun Hill donated its entire harvest to the Cornell Food Pantry.

“As the university’s student farm, we felt an obligation to serve the Cornell community and found an ideal partnership with the Cornell Food Pantry,” said Lily Cowen ’21, student farm co-manager.

The season yielded staples like basil, beans, beets, chard, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce, radishes and strawberries, as well as less common crops like eggplant, Romanesco broccoli and tatsoi, a leafy green related to the more familiar bok choy.

“This season proved to us just how much you can do in a short period of time, and the impact we can have as a small student farm, cementing our desire to make donations a larger part of our mission,” said co-manager Brian Caine ’20, who’s set to graduate this fall.

At Cornell Orchards, the farm crew has been donating apples to the Friendship Donations Network for more than 10 years. In 2020, the orchards have been contributing 200 to 400 pounds a week, in addition to monthly donations to the nearby Newfield Kitchen Cupboard. When the pandemic closed schools in the spring, the orchards provided 14,000 pounds of apples to help local school districts continue serving meals to families in need.

Cornell AES operates nine research farms across New York state, from Long Island to Lake Champlain. The field trials they support serve as a bridge between academic discovery and commercial application — contributing to a healthy and secure food supply, sustainable agriculture, and thriving economies. Farm staff and researchers regularly donate fresh produce to local food banks, reducing waste whenever possible.

“It hasn’t been an easy year for any of our faculty, staff and students, or for others in our broader community,” said Margaret Smith ’78, Ph.D. ’82, director of Cornell AES and associate dean of CALS. “But going the extra mile to help others – who these students and farm employees haven’t even met – demonstrates their true Cornell spirit.”

Anja Timm is the communications coordinator and assistant to the director of operations at the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

Header image: The Dilmun Hill Student Farm donated all of their produce this season to the Cornell Food Pantry. Photo by Lily Cowen/Provided

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