Go Big and Go Home: Big Red Farm Internship Expands to Backyard Gardens

Lawrenceville’s Big Red Farm (BRF) interns decided to go big and go home this summer. COVID-19 sidelined their opportunity to learn while working on Lawrenceville’s 30-acre Big Red Farm, so 2020 BRF interns, Connor King ’22, Ria Patel ’23, and Daniel Zhu ’23, are tending home gardens this summer in Princeton, N.J., Skillman, N.J., and Pennington, N.J., respectively. (BRF interns Alistair Lam ‘23 and Ford Collins ‘23 are working on other sustainability projects - check back soon to learn more!)
When on-campus summer projects were cancelled due to the pandemic, Lawrenceville Director of Sustainability Steve Laubach said he was determined to create meaningful opportunities for students who had such a passion for the Farm. “My goals were for them to spend time outdoors during the summer time, learn about how to grow their own food, or identify species of interest to them, and consider their place in the larger ecosystem and in society,” he explained. The interns are documenting their progress on an electronic bulletin board and will present their experiences this fall at a poster session.
King, Patel, and Zhu took a few moments away from their plantings to discuss their experiences thus far. Responses were edited for brevity and clarity.
Why did you want to be a Big Red Farm intern?
Connor King: I developed an interest in sustainability while I was completing a merit badge for scouting, and working for the farm seemed like an interesting use of my time. I had no real prior experience with the [Big Red] farm other than the brief visit I made as a freshman.
Ria Patel: Although [farming] is a simple idea at first glance, it has a variety of components that need to be taken care of for a successful harvest, such as fertilizer, pesticide, water, sunlight, etc. This complexity was something I took interest in; furthermore, some of my family members were/are farmers and I wanted to see what that experience was like. [Also], every year my family and I turn our backyard into a garden for the summer.
Daniel Zhu: Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, harvesting crops on a farm was never something I could ever picture myself doing in a million years. Up until a trip [to the Big Red Farm] last year, I had never been to a farm, but was slightly charmed by the charisma of being around animals and crops of all sorts afterward. When presented with the opportunity to potentially work on the farm through the Big Red Farm Internship program, I knew it was a unique learning experience that I had to take.
Due to the pandemic, you can’t actually be at the Farm. How do you feel about working instead on a home garden?
CK: The home garden was a cool project to put together. I built a raised bed from scratch, as well as some planters, which I placed on the railings of the deck of my house. The garden work has kept me busy during quarantine, and I've enjoyed learning from others and applying what I've learned in my garden.
RP: Although I was initially disappointed I could not work on the Farm, I was still glad that I was able to participate in some sort of activity with fellow Farm interns. Having a garden was a comparatively smaller step into understanding the vast idea of farming, but it was still informative. Because I was paying more attention to yield and plant behavior, I got to better understand how my family farm worked and the factors that my family took into account when gardening.
DZ: I was originally a bit disappointed, but I knew it would be selfish to prioritize my wants over the well-being of others and have been making the best of the situation. Overall, I feel that working at home has presented me with the unique challenge of autonomy. While I’ve had wonderful guidance from Dr. Laubach, I’ve had to figure out a lot of things on my own: building a raised bed, how to manage crops, realistic solutions to keeping away animals, etc. It’s a new unique challenge in itself, and I’ve definitely learned quite a bit from that alone.
What’s been the best part of the experience thus far? What’s been the most challenging?
CK: The best part of this experience has been communicating with [local] gardeners [as well as] Dr. Laubach and the other interns. The most challenging part was building the raised bed. I have done some woodworking projects in the past, so the assembling wasn't too difficult, but the real struggle came from finding a place to put the finished project.
RP: The best part was seeing the first peppers grow and develop. Seeing my first yield helped boost my own confidence and showed that hard work paid off. Unfortunately, not long before seeing my initial peppers, one of my plants died [due to storm damage]. For awhile nothing seemed to be working, but after some time and patience, the rest of the plants started flourishing.
DZ: The best part is definitely seeing your seedlings slowly grow into large plants. The satisfaction of knowing that my work is paying off is rewarding. In terms of challenges, just maintaining my plants as a whole is quite a workload. Despite the fact that I was only planting eight or so seedlings, I still needed materials used on a large scale farm, so learning the basic in-and-out of that has been quite the task. The amount of times my parents have driven back and forth to Home Depot to pick up things we never realized we needed was quite surprising.
What’s currently growing in your garden?
CK: I planted tomatoes because they tend to grow well at this time of year in New Jersey, and I figured my family would get a lot of use out of them. The peppers and cucumbers also usually grow well at this time of year, and I figured we could find ways to use them. I am not a huge fan of tomatoes, but I knew my family would enjoy them. I do like peppers, so I look forward to harvesting more of them once they finish growing. I have never really tried cucumbers, but I figured I could give them a shot. I have been giving the produce to my family to do whatever they want with it. I don't cook too much myself, but I am happy enough knowing my stuff is getting used.
RP: I chose to grow sweet peppers and hot peppers because they would be useful for my family, and because they are some of my favorite vegetables. Most of the time, my family and I use the peppers either for cooking to make something spicy, or just eaten raw for a quick snack.
DZ: Several peppers, hybrid cherry tomatoes and a type of melon that my parents and I are both unsure of (we received a seedling from a family friend). It’s funny because I actually hate eating tomatoes [but] my mother asked if I could grow some for her.
What do you feel you’ve learned from this experience?
CK: The biggest thing I’ve learned about gardening is that it is very much a process of trial and error. The gardeners I have been learning from love to add new things to their gardens just to see if they work. As a result, every garden I have seen ends up being distinct, especially if it has been going for a couple of years.
RP: My home garden has taught me quite a lot about keeping on schedule, staying consistent, analyzing and responding to difficult situations, and staying resilient.
DZ: One of the biggest takeaways from this experience was learning how to tend and care for something. So far in my life, I haven’t really experienced the feeling of being solely responsible for something, a feeling one might gain from taking care of a baby or a pet. While on a much smaller scale, learning to plant and maintain crops has taught me how to actively take care of something in my possession.
Overall, it’s been a wonderful experience and I’m glad the BRF Internship program was able to continue on virtually! Despite the fact that we weren’t able to be together in person, I’ve learned so much over the past couple weeks virtually and would like to thank my fellow BRF Interns, Dr. Laubach, and everyone else who helped or played a role along the way.
For additional information, please contact Lisa M. Gillard Hanson, director of Public Relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.

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