Star Route Farms connects USF back to nature

Students and faculty can gain firsthand experience with agricultural practices at Star Route Farms.
PHOTO BY DOMINIQUE CADENAS CALVO/SF FOGHORN

Tucked by the Bolinas Bay, Star Route Farms (SRF) is the oldest continuously certified organic farm in California. Now owned by USF, the farm has become a way for students and faculty to escape the city and reconnect with food production.

SRF spans 100 acres — only about a third of it is farmed — contains a salmon creek, woodlands, housing for farm workers, and event spaces. It was founded in 1974 by Warren Weber and purchased by the University in 2017 for $10.4 million

When it was first acquired, it was unclear how the USF community could best utilize the farms. SRF is 28 miles from campus, or about an hour drive on a winding road, which makes it difficult for students to regularly visit.

April Randle, assistant professor of environmental science and faculty director of SRF since 2020, set out to bridge a communication gap between the farm and faculty, and facilitate trips to SRF. “I feel like we’re finally starting to reach a number of people, and it feels exciting,” said Randle, in an interview with the Foghorn.

Numerous courses began to visit the farm in the past few years, such as environmental studies, art and architecture, classical studies, and even nursing. At the farm, classes can study how organic farming works, test water and soil, learn about nutrition, or just enjoy being in the outdoors.

As for accessing the farm, Randle said faculty and students make do by renting minivans or using their personal vehicles. Because the farm is not equipped yet for overnight guests from USF, currently no one is allowed to sleep over.

To promote more use of the farm, SRF created the Star Route Farm Faculty Award. It is a twice yearly grant that is given to USF faculty and students to develop collaborative projects with SRF. “It’s sort of a way to encourage people to try something new, do something new at the farm,” said Randle. “They can get money for research, they can get money for teaching — sort of developing an aspect of their course curriculum that involves the farm or for research.”

One such recipient is David Silver, associate professor and chair of the environmental studies program, who has used the grant to help the USF Food Pantry. “I am able to purchase fresh produce from Star Route Farms and distribute it, for free, to students via the USF Food Pantry,” said Silver, in a statement to the Foghorn. “It feels especially rewarding to get California’s finest organic veggies into the hands and bellies of our students, many of whom are experiencing serious to severe food insecurity.”

Biology master’s student Sarah Gao, and the graduate program director of biology, Associate Professor Naupaka Zimmerman, were joint recipients of the award in 2022 for their research into how droughts affect nutrient levels in organic soil. Gao, who graduated last year, said she felt grateful for the opportunity to have hands-on experience at the farm. 

“Prior to starting my research at USF, I only had a textbook understanding of agriculture and soil dynamics without any real world context,” she said in a statement to the Foghorn. “But thanks to Star Route Farms… I was able to experience how organic farming actually works — feeling the soil in my hands, smelling the dug up earth, even witnessing firsthand the very real and harsh impacts of our destabilizing climate on the day to day operations of a working farm.”

Zimmerman also emphasized the value of SRF in sustainable agricultural education. “It has allowed us to pursue a number of projects looking at the microbiome of cover crops and how they contribute to the ecology of the agricultural system,” he said.

Randle said she wants student visitation rates and faculty use of the farm to grow even more. “I would like to be able to support other faculty and their vision plans about how they want to use the farm,” she said. “I am an environmental scientist, a biologist and an ecologist. So the ideas that I tend to think of are in that realm. But, I feel like there are so many interesting ideas about ways in which students can utilize that landscape.”

Because USF is based in the hustle and bustle of San Francisco city life, Randle said the farm allows an escape to a more “natural environment.” Many faculty or student retreats and seminars, Randle said, include buying SRF produce and picnicking in nature, outside of the environment of offices or classrooms. 

“I think people have found it to be very freeing, very inspiring, and very productive,” said Randle. “We’d love to have faculty applying for those faculty grants, so that we can help you get to the farm. And we’d love the farm to become a regular part of your curriculum.”

For interested faculty, SRF offers tours of the farm by Randle or farm co-manager Annabelle Lenderink. Applications for faculty grant awards can be found at myusf.usfca.edu/provost/star-route-farms-faculty-award. 

Interested student organizations can arrange reservations through Randle as well, but a faculty supervisor must be present for tours.

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