By Whitney Baxter
Planning, plotting and planting approximately two-and-one-half acres of fruits and vegetables to sell this summer is a learning experience for the student intern at the Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station.
Alice Paulson, who graduated this spring with a horticulture degree, has been interning at the research station since the middle of January. She spent the late winter and early spring months choosing what fruits and vegetables she wanted to grow in her own vegetable plots at the research station and ordering seeds to begin growing those crops.
“I tried choosing a little bit of everything,” Paulson said. “Things I would like as a consumer and some things I’d never grown before and wanted to try.”
Her list includes lettuce, peppers, squash, zucchini, pumpkins and various herbs. She also has tomatoes growing in the research station’s high tunnels.
Each Friday during the growing and harvest season, Paulson can be found distributing produce to customers on campus. Due to COVID-19, this year’s produce sales have been converted to curbside pick-up only, rather than having a table located somewhere on campus to distribute produce to customers who ordered ahead of time or who want to purchase some that day. All orders must be placed by noon on Thursdays via the research station’s Produce for Sale webpage.
Nick Howell, Horticulture Research Station superintendent, said their produce sales are up so far this year compared to previous years, despite the pick-up changes.
“People have been thrilled with curbside pick-up. It’s gone extremely well, so far,” Howell said. “They know the produce is good, they know it’s safe.”
Paulson said this internship experience is providing insight into what it will take to achieve her dream - owning and operating a small fruit and vegetable farm.
“I get to experience what it’s like and what it takes to grow and sell produce,” Paulson said.
Other activities at the research station
In addition to the fruit and vegetables Paulson is growing this summer, researchers at Iowa State also contribute to the 50-60 tons of produce grown each year at the research station. Howell said researchers pay a small fee to conduct fruit and vegetable work at the research station. In order to keep the fee low, researchers must turn over a portion of their produce to the research station to be sold or donated to local organizations.
ISU Dining is one of the organizations that take in the produce, using it for food served at the various dining centers on campus. Last year, they purchased 5,000 pounds of onions, 7,000 pounds of peppers and 15,000 pounds of apples from the research station.
“It’s a wonderful partnership because students are learning how to grow the produce, the produce is being used to feed students, and ISU Dining pays us for the produce,” Howell said of the agreement with ISU Dining.
Anywhere from 80-90 research projects take place at the 235-acre research station north of Ames in a given year, though that number is down slightly this year due to COVID-19, Howell said. Besides fruit and vegetable research, other projects relate to animal ecology, entomology, ornamental horticulture and turf.