Autumn was in the cool wind on the last Friday morning of this past September, and Professor Chris Henke and a half-dozen of his students were bent over a row of potatoes in a field at Common Thread Community Farm, three miles from campus, pulling weeds.

    One of Common Thread’s two owner-farmers, Chris Babis, was working alongside Henke and the students. When a tractor-trailer from the global food marketer Sysco rolled by on a road above the field, loaded with supplies for the Colgate dining halls, a student asked Babis how that made him feel.
    “I take it with a grain of salt,” Babis said. “I wish all food could be grown locally, but I realize that it can’t be. At least for now.”
    Across the field, in a former dairy barn where Common Thread processes its fresh vegetables, Babis’s partner, Amy Brown, and another of Henke’s students were cleaning raw carrots in a root washer, a slanted, rolling drum made of spaced wooden slats. Dirty carrots go in the higher end, the drum rolls as water is hosed in, and washed carrots come out of the bottom. On this day, the washed carrots were destined for the Colgate dining halls.

Professor Chris Henke,  Alli Taylor '10, and Jenna Weber '10 (l-r) pull weeds in the potato patch at Common Thread Farm.

Growing interest
The students pulling weeds were enrolled in a new course called Food, an honors-level offering in general education. That Food was one of the most sought-after courses on campus this fall is an indicator of the surge in interest that students (among many others) are taking in the environment generally, and local foods in particular.
    On the evening of the same Friday that Henke’s class was pulling weeds, for instance, Colgate faculty members enjoyed their first fall tunk, a social gathering at Merrill House. The flyer for the event had advertised: “All of the vegetables used will be locally grown, and some of the meat will be as well.”
    The following morning, students and members of Colgate’s faculty and staff mingled with their fellow Hamiltonians at the weekly farmers market on the village green, a decades-old tradition from spring through fall. As patrons of the farmers market wandered among local vendors’ stalls, selecting fresh produce, meats, flowers, honey, baked goods, and crafts, Michael Palmer ’10 studied their buying habits for a research study supported by the university’s Upstate Institute.
    Shae Frydenlund ’10 helped found Green Thumbs, a student group, “because there was an interest on campus, not only in what we consume in the dining halls, but in supporting organic farming and local produce.” Green Thumbs seeks to raise campus awareness of farms in the surrounding community, and encourages the campus dining service to use locally produced foods. The students are testing the feasibility of starting a community garden on campus.
    “In the last three or four years, students have become more interested in where their food is coming from,” said Sodexo’s George Murray, director of the university’s dining service. Added Murray, who has been with Colgate for more than 30 years, “Students today are more aware and care more than students did fifteen or twenty years ago. As a society, I think we’re that way.”
    Buying locally “is the right thing to do,” said Murray. “We all live here and eat here, and our families are here. Buying locally helps make our community businesses more successful.” His search to meet that goal efficiently and with foods that are certifiably safe led him to Purdy & Sons Foods, 10 miles down the road in Sherburne.

Organic movement to organic foods
If some of the food discussed in this story is organic, so too is the process that has led the university to this point.
    “In the old days,” said Murray in a reference to the late 1970s, “a lot more of our food came from local sources. I remember buying eggs from someone in Hubbardsville. There were more local connections.”
    But a more corporate approach prevailed through the ’80s and into the ’90s, Murray said. “We consolidated to a kind of one-stop-shopping approach with Sysco Foods and others that could deliver canned goods, meats, cheeses, eggs, janitorial supplies, and paper on the same truck. It was the direction everyone went.”
    Then the student inquiries about local food began, at the front edge of a rising tide of public awareness of global issues such as conservation and sustainability.
    Murray and his staff welcomed the interest and began to research what was necessary to bring more local foods into the university’s dining halls and catering services. “We needed to find the best way to pull in all the local purveyors without having a line of pickup trucks backing up to the loading docks. And we needed to make sure that the food is not only local, but also safe,” he said.
    It is also a fact that the growing season for local produce does not square ideally with Colgate’s academic year. “At the height of the produce season, we’re feeding eight-year-old soccer campers,” Murray explained. So he sought out other locally produced foods that could add variety to the menu.
    While Murray was looking for reliable sources of local foods, Dan Purdy was e-mailing then-president Rebecca Chopp to ask about doing business with the university. Financial vice president David Hale fielded Purdy’s question and brought him to Murray’s attention.
    A fourth-generation family business now run by Purdy and his wife, Vicki, Purdy & Sons is not only inspected by the USDA, FDA, and New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, but also certified by an independent third-party audit.
    “Even the national vendors don’t have all these checkpoints,” said Purdy, whose “excellent” rating for receiving, processing, storing, and shipping food provided the reassurance that Murray and Sodexo needed to establish Purdy & Sons as a supplier of foods produced by local farmers and vendors.
    “We talked with Dan about becoming a distributor for other local folks,” said Murray. “Dan would inspect their facilities to be sure they met all the qualifications to be a vendor, then arrange to pick up their products and distribute them to us.” Deliveries began in fall 2008, and the variety of local vendors who sell to the university through Purdy has grown steadily over the past year. Yogurt, granola, spaghetti sauce, juices, sausage, and other meats are among the locally produced foods that Purdy & Sons now distributes to the university, in addition to seasonal fruits and vegetables. At this point, the relationship has made it possible for all sauces (except marinara) to be made from scratch, eliminating the need to purchase prepared sauces, salsa, or dips.
    Feeding students takes more food than local farmers can sometimes produce, but Murray turns to the local suppliers first before supplementing from other sources. And he also buys regionally produced foods through other suppliers, such as dairy products from Binghamton-based Crowley Foods, and fruits and vegetables from Mento Produce, a fifth-generation family business in Syracuse.

Sebastian Wood '10, a member of Henke’s Food class, runs carrots destined for Colgate’s dining halls through the drum washer at  Common Thread Community Farm, three miles from campus.

Community-supported agriculture
For Common Thread, the local farm where Henke and his students were preparing the carrots that would end up in Frank Dining Hall, the university dining service is a small but growing slice of the annual business. “This was a pilot year for the farm-to-cafeteria initiative,” said co-owner Brown. “We deeply appreciate Colgate’s business and support, and we plan to increase our efforts next year.”
    The university community shares in the economy and ideology of the 13-acre farm in other tangible ways. Common Thread practices “community-supported agriculture” (CSA), where community members buy in advance a share in the farm’s produce for the year. Ninety-five percent of Common Thread’s business comes from its 225 members, many of whom (including Henke and his family) are members of the university’s faculty and staff.
    Using funds generated by the sale of shares at the beginning of the season, Babis and Brown plant their fields in spring. Weekly through the growing season, Common Thread bundles up shares of the harvested produce that members can pick up in the farm store — the loft of the former dairy barn that also serves as the processing facility. Goods from a dozen other local producers — from coffee to honey to bagels — are on sale in the store, which is also open to drop-in customers.
    The give-and-take in the farm store is really a conversation among friends. One fall Saturday morning, near the end of the growing season, a Colgate-connected member couple were choosing from the late-season harvest of tubers, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, onions, and spaghetti squash arrayed on farm carts, as Brown, bundled in a heavy sweater, toque, and scarf, riffed on her own alma mater, Hampshire College.
    “The bottom line is important,” said Babis, “but clearly the connection to community is another important motivation. People want the food, the community, and to know their farmer.”
    Henke said that membership in Common Thread has changed the way his family eats. Adapting recipes as the produce varies week to week is a reminder that availability changes with the seasons for local farms. Henke and his 8-year-old daughter are among the members who regularly pitch in to help on the farm. “It’s giving my daughter a different experience from mine growing up,” he said.

A family shopping at the Oneida Farmers Market gives their feedback for Upstate Institute fellow Mike Palmer’s study of farmers markets in Madison County.

Studying farmers markets
While share-supported CSA farming is relatively new to the community (Common Thread has been in operation just two years), the Hamilton Farmers Market is an institution. For decades, local farmers and other vendors have been setting up shop on the village green Saturday mornings from May through October.
    Averaging more than 100 vendors, Hamilton’s is by far the largest of the four farmers markets that operate in Madison County (Town of Lenox, Cazenovia, and Oneida host the others). A typical summer Saturday will find what seems to be most of the residents of the greater Hamilton area packed onto the green, buying or selling fresh foods and flowers, lobbying for a political cause, listening to live music at the bandstand, or simply catching up with neighbors. It is a model for small-town commerce and community.
    Becca Jablonski, Madison County’s agricultural economic development specialist, has launched a study of the county’s four farmers markets as she looks for ways to help them grow and prosper in support of local agriculture. Colgate’s Upstate Institute assigned senior intern Mike Palmer to help Jablonski develop baseline data on the markets over the past summer.
    Working full time on the project, Palmer visited each of the farmers markets at least four times. Using tools developed for a similar study conducted in northern New York in 2008 by Cornell University, Palmer estimated attendance at the markets, asked customers about their buying patterns, surveyed the vendors and farmers for their opinions, and gave market managers the opportunity to rate their market’s success. 
    A final report is still in the works, but Palmer said his research shows nearly $1 million a year being spent at the county’s farmers markets, with vendors’ proceeds proportionate to the size of the market. “It’s too easy to forget when you go to the supermarket and the produce comes from California or New Zealand, but this really is an agricultural county,” said Palmer, who is Jablonski’s second Upstate Institute intern in as many years.
    In summer 2008, Katy Morley ’09 helped Jablonski map the Madison County farms with marketable products. Morley also promoted the county’s first buy-local week, and worked on the open farm day that attracted visitors to a dozen farms. The farm map was released at a party sponsored by the Colgate Inn.

Madison Bounty
Jablonski manages a variety of programs and initiatives that promote the economic viability of the 700 farms and associated agribusinesses in Madison County. Another of her efforts with direct ties to the university is Madison Bounty, a service that delivers local foods to area residents. Working in conjunction with Chenango and Onondaga counties, the Bounty enables customers to place online orders for a wide range of foods produced by more than 80 local farms.
    With Purdy & Sons serving as the collection and distribution point, Madison Bounty is now delivering orders to more than 90 customers a week in Madison, Chenango, and Onondaga counties. For small and medium-sized farms, and especially for the Amish farmers whose numbers are growing in central New York, the Bounty solves a thorny distribution problem.
    A grant from Konosioni, Colgate’s senior honor society, helped launch Madison Bounty, which has reciprocated by supplying a basket of local foods to be bid upon in Konosioni’s annual charity auction. Madison Bounty also caters events on campus, such as the celebration of Earth Day, lunches hosted by the Upstate Institute, and an “Eat Local/Think Global” banquet sponsored by the Hunger Task Force to raise awareness about hunger issues in the United States.
    “To me, one of the great things about living in upstate New York is the food and the access we have to the tremendous bounty of wonderful and diverse products. With the support of faculty, staff, and students eager to support local agriculture, there are growing numbers of ways we have been able to get local foods into Colgate,” said Jablonski, who regularly interacts with students and members of the faculty and staff.

Senior Mike Palmer’s research showed farmers markets in Madison County generate nearly $1 million per year.

None of these activities happens in isolation. The heightened interest in the sources of food served on campus ties to other efforts to be conscientious about how university practices affect nature and society, both local and global. The cumulative effect locally mirrors movements happening across the country to be more responsible environmentally and socially.
    On campus, since 2003, an annual Green Summit has brought students, faculty, and staff together “to establish a shared vision for building the environmental future of Colgate.” And four years ago, the president approved a faculty recommendation to create an Environmental Council (since renamed the Sustainability Council).
    The council also proposed that the university employ a campus sustainability coordinator, a suggestion that was realized in spring 2009 with the hiring of John Pumilio, a native upstate New Yorker who has worked in environmental jobs around the world. Pumilio said he comes to work every day asking, “Are our operations, policies, and purchasing decisions environmentally and socially responsible? Are we doing things today that ensure that human communities can coexist with ecological communities?”
    Within his first seven months on the job, Pumilio is already having an impact, both ideologically and practically. He senses among people on campus and off a general readiness to be involved, and says his role is providing people with the knowledge and tools they need to move ahead. His October talk to the Chenango Valley Alumni Club was titled “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”
    “If people count on me to make Colgate sustainable, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “But if everyone considers sustainability as they do their day-to-day work, then we’ll get to where we need to go and I’m just here as a help desk.”

    Murray and the food service have bought into the idea, and the effort extends beyond buying more local foods. The plastic and styrofoam cups, plates, and dinnerware long used at the snack bar have been replaced by products that are biodegradable or compostable, reducing the impact at the county landfill. And while serious composting is only a goal at this point, a campus residence for students with a special interest in the environment — The Loj — began heating with recycled cooking oil this winter.
    So Frydenlund, the Green Thumbs co-founder who also happens to live at The Loj, can literally be warmed by one outcome of her activism, even as she’s fed by another. Frydenlund, who will graduate with a double major in environmental geography and art, said, “People our age realize that climate change and sustainable living are things we can’t ignore.
College introduces you to being active. It gives you the tools and power to be a member of a community with a purpose.”
    As a PhD candidate looking for a topic to study in the 1990s, Henke examined the relationship between agricultural scientists and the farm industry in California’s Salinas Valley (later to become the subject of his book Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power). “People asked me then why I’d want to do that,” he recalled recently.
    “Now it seems like sustainable agriculture is all anyone’s interested in. Students are knocking down my door to get into this course on food, and they are excited about going out to the farm to learn about agriculture.
    “You’d expect that at a place with an ag school, like Penn State or Cornell,” said Henke. “But at Colgate? This shift in people’s interest in food and where it comes from — it could be a thesis for someone’s dissertation.”

Legumes from Cayuga Pure Organics in the Ithaca area, on deck for a Frank Dining Hall meal.

Watch a video about sustainability in the dining halls at

All photos by Andrew Daddio


Ag futures

As Sam Meyer ’10 tossed potato culls to the pigs penned at Common Thread Community Farm, he said Professor Chris Henke’s honors-level Food course gave him an appreciation of the work that goes into raising local produce.
    “And the fact that the farm’s owners, Amy Brown and Chris Babis, are so young makes this experience more accessible,” said Meyer, who was actually a shareholder at Common Thread before he learned about Henke’s class. “My student share runs from August through October.”
    Meyer, a native of Saranac Lake in northern New York, said he would like to find work related to agriculture. That interest got Meyer into Henke’s class.
    Said Henke: “After I made this long speech about not adding anyone to the class, Sam came to my office to say, ‘I want to be a farmer — learning about food is more than just another class to me.’”

Feeding her passion
“So much brought me to the realization of what I want to do with my life,” said Nina Merrill ’10, who’s about to go pro with her interest in sustainable foods. “I don’t think this ever would have happened if every piece of the puzzle didn’t fall into place like it did at Colgate.”
    Merrill has become an online publisher of information about efforts to bring organic food to college campuses nationwide. After an internship with a New York law firm convinced Merrill that the law was not her calling, she took stock of her other interests. “My passion was nutrition, but I didn’t want to be a nutritionist.”
    She accepted a summer position with the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in 2008, initially researching what students were saying online about organic foods. “There’s this huge movement on college campuses toward local, sustainable, organic food, but nothing was being discussed online.” The OTA encouraged her to drop her research project and start a blog, which she did: Organic on the Green: A Blog to Feed the Organic Revolution in Campus Dining.
    Merrill thought she would have trouble finding contributors (“Who wants to write an essay for free if you’re in college?”), but the response has been so great that she has trouble fitting everyone in. She has compiled some of the best advice from the blog into a downloadable handbook, Taste the Change: How to Go Organic on Campus. On a summer 2009 internship, Merrill created yet another guide, Student Gardens and Food Service, for aspiring student organic farmers.
    Issues with her own health had actually raised the stakes for Merrill when it came to her concerns about where the food in campus dining halls might come from. Debilitating migraines had caused her to drop out of school for a semester shortly after she arrived on campus. Doctors back home on Long Island traced the cause of the migraines to food allergies.
    “The first thing I did when I came back was to meet with George Murray and others at Frank Dining Hall to tell them about all my allergies and health concerns. They were unbelievably devoted to making sure I had a good dining experience.”
    When officials at the food service’s parent company, Sodexo, learned about Merrill’s situation, they asked her to join a national student board of directors.
    After completing her coursework in December (she majored in women’s studies and minored in film and media studies), Merrill was hired at a company that specializes in sustainable foods.

Local Fare at Frank Dining Hall
A Sampler November 6–12


Organic Yogurt (Chobani, South Edmeston)

Natural Gourmet Home-Baked Cereal (Upstate Harvest, Bainbridge)

Fresh Bagels (Bagel Grove, Utica)

Milk and yogurt (Crowley Foods, Binghamton)

Breakfast Sausage Links and Patties (made by Purdy & Sons, Sherburne, N.Y., with pork raised at J&D Farms, Georgetown, or S&C Farm, Mohawk)

Lunch and Dinner

Butternut Squash (Common Thread Community Farm, Madison) and Lentils

Black Bean Nachos (Cayuga Pure Organics, Brooktondale/Ithaca)

Broiled Flank Steak, Szechuan Style (Purdy & Sons)

Roasted Mustard-Crusted Pork Loin (Purdy & Sons)

Creamy Potato and Leek Soup (Common Thread)

Beef Chili with Smoky Red Beans (Cayuga Pure Organics and Purdy & Sons)

Brussels Sprouts (Common Thread)

Black, Navy, and Red Kidney Beans at the Organic Salad Bar (Cayuga Pure Organics)

Marinara Sauce (The Pasta Shop, Utica)

Whole foods harvest

As one of their course requirements, students in Professor Chris Henke’s general education course Food spent time each week working at nearby Common Thread Community Farm this past fall. Henke’s students helped bring in:

•    1,850 pounds of potatoes
•    3,200 pounds of carrots
•    600 pounds of beets
•    250 pounds of parsnips
•    450 pounds of leeks
•    2,000 pounds of red and
     green cabbage