This fall, roughly 360 Yale students got firsthand experience being a farmhand for a day.
Over the course of four Saturdays, starting in early September, Yale Dining and Yale College Council organized tours of local farms. The series, which started five years ago, has garnered especially high interest this year. The tours, which are sponsored by Yale’s produce distributor FreshPoint, offer students an opportunity to visit the sources that help supply the fruits and vegetables served in dining halls. While participants said they enjoyed learning about sustainability initiatives and eating free food, some noted the apparent promotional nature of the tours as well.
Brittney Sooksengdao ’16, who visited Blue Hills Orchard on Saturday, said the tours catered to her personal interest.
“I personally am really interested in sustainable food sourcing and locally grown food,” Sooksengdao said. “I think it is cool that Yale is able to support local [businesses].”
Despite the inclement weather, Sooksengdao said she and her friends were still able to enjoy the home-cooked brunch and fresh fruit from the orchard.
Yale Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke said that in addition to providing students with a fun excursion, the emphasis of these tours is to demonstrate Yale’s dedication to environmental awareness.
“[It] is a key part of Yale Dining’s commitment to sustainability and educating students about food policy, good agricultural practices, and just getting them in touch with the sources of their food,” she said.
YCC Events Director Jaime Halberstam ‘16, who was involved in publicizing the events and coordinating registrations, said the series was so popular that it was necessary to hold a lottery for allocating spots and to create a waiting list for interested students. Van Dyke said nearly 600 students expressed interest for the tours.
Each tour of roughly 90 students departs at 8 a.m. from Commons, followed by a brunch at Rose’s Berry Farm in South Glastonbury, Connecticut. Depending on the weekend, the group will then visit a different location including Cecarelli Farm in Northford, Horton Farm in South Glastonbury, Blue Hills Orchard in Wallingford and High Hill Orchard in Meriden.
Farmers interviewed said they think it is important for students to understand the farm-to-table process.
“I have been farming all my life,” said High Hills Orchard farmer Wayne Young. “It is good to connect with younger people and give them knowledge of where the food comes from.”
Young said he has been working with FreshPoint for over 20 years. The company, he added, streamlines farm products and delivers them to Yale and other large-scale dining operations that would otherwise be unable to contract with local growers.
But Young said both Yale Dining and FreshPoint could buy farm products at fairer prices.
“I think the reality is that they are a little too tight with their money on some things,” he said.
But Farmer Eric Henry, who runs the Blue Hills Orchard with his family, said he has a great deal of respect for FreshPoint, which has been working with his farm for over 40 years.
Young added that FreshPoint sponsors trips for students, which includes the cost of reimbursing farmers for the produce picked by students. He said this cost amounts to about four to five dollars per student.
Both Young and Henry praised Yale Dining for sourcing locally.
Yale Dining Director of Supply Management and Sustainability Gerry Remer said 55 percent of the produce Yale purchases to serve in dining halls comes from regional growers.
Henry said he and his wife enjoy leading tours for students from elementary school up to the college level. He said his favorite part of the tour comes when students see 13,000 bushels of produce and truly understand the scale of operations at his 300 acre farm.
Rebecca Sylvers ’15, a former editor of the News said she got the impression there was a clear goal in the way the farms and the operations were presented.
“That’s the whole reason Yale Dining sponsored it,” Sylvers said. “It’s so that students will say, ‘Wow isn’t the food of Yale pretty good. Look it comes from farms, that’s pretty cool.’”
But Sylvers added the tours ultimately encourage positive actions such as eating more locally.
Still, not every part of the tour was sweet as freshly picked apples.
Halberstam said it was concerning to hear about the difficulties small farms are facing in the current economic conditions.
“I had always pictured farms in this beautiful idyllic setting,” Halberstam said. “What was most informative is learning about how most of them are really struggling.”
The last farm tour will occur on October 11th at High Hill Orchard in Meriden.