Cultivating the homegrown advantage

Students head to greener pastures to help community-supported agriculture

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Kristin Duhaime 12

Farm owner Erin Bullock, left, and student Kimberly White discuss a tomato trellis prototype for small farms that is cost-effective, easy to install and increases the cherry tomato population.

The cherry tomato plants were outgrowing their living space at Mud Creek Farm.

And the oats needed to be rolled and processed locally for use at Small World Bakery.

So five RIT students rolled up their sleeves to find sustainable solutions to challenges faced by the farming trade—concentrating their efforts on small- to mid-size farmers, processors and distributors in the Rochester-metro area.

It was all part of a “Food Systems Innovation” project for Xanthe Matychak’s Design-thinking class at RIT’s E. Philip Saunders College of Business. Last fall the students met with Erin Bullock at her 15-acre farming operation in Victor and also with Luke Stodola, owner of Small World Bakery on South Plymouth Avenue. The bakery and the farm collaborate and operate primarily through a membership program similar to the Community-Supported Agriculture model.

“My group and I realized several things about mid-scale farming,” says Kimberly White, a fourth-year graphic design student. “The mid-sized farms in the U.S. aren’t being paid enough attention. There is a lack in farming equipment for such size farms, and they are using their creativity to makeshift a lot of their own tools.”

White and four other students—Kristin Duhaime, Jordan Pingitore, Donald Maguire and Gerard Le Clair—discovered a “Goldilocks problem.”

“The tools available to small farmers and processors are either too small, for serious home gardeners, or too big, for industrial farmers,” says Matychak, a Saunders College visiting lecturer who conducts the interdisciplinary class in RIT’s Center for Student Innovation. “So the students worked with Erin and Luke to develop an appropriately scaled tomato trellis for the farm and an oat roller for the bakery because currently Luke sends his oats out-of-state for processing.”

Bullock owns the pesticide-free sustainable farm that grows vegetables, herbs and flowers from June through October. She says she “overwhelmed the students a little” because there are a hundred problems that need to be solved at the farm.

“In our pick-your-own garden we grow a lot of cherry tomatoes, and one of the problems is that the tomatoes outgrow the trellis,” Bullock explains. “We have close to 600 feet of tomatoes so what we needed had to be easy, quick and cheap.

“The students designed a prototype of an extension trellis for our regular trellising system that would allow vines to keep growing and theoretically yield more, but we’ll have to wait until next August to see if it works.”

According to Matychak, the women led the trellis team and the men led the roller team, but there was some crossover between the groups.

Duhaime, who hails from Bethany, Conn., and is a fourth-year graphic design student at RIT, believes design-thinking has commercial value for new-product development in agriculture.

“We think of a garden in our backyard, and farming is far from that,” she says. “I give farmers like Erin a lot of credit in trying to make a living from their trade. The equipment she was using was either found in the woods or made by Erin and her staff. It was very rewarding to think our prototype designs could help improve her business and that of Luke’s as well.”