Many Princetonians understand photosynthesis and can calculate the pH of soil, but few have knowledge of what occurs before food reaches their fork. With a 3.5-acre seed farm just a short drive from campus, more and more students are learning about the science behind native crops, as well as the cultural significance of the University land to the Lenni-Lenape peoples.
The origin of The Seed Farm
Tessa Desmond, professor of FRS105: Saving Seeds, and Daniel Rubenstein, retired professor of EEB303: Agriculture, Human Diets and the Environment, created The Seed Farm in 2021 to support community partners in replanting heirloom seeds and repairing Princeton’s relationship with both the plants and the people native to the area.
The idea for The Seed Farm came into being in 2020, when Desmond heard about a local movement promoting seed systems and regenerative, sustainable agriculture. At this time, Desmond taught a course on seed preservation to a small group of first-year students over Zoom during the pandemic.
“Her class made my fall semester and really my whole year feel whole,” said Akhila Bandlora ’24, a Psychology major who took Desmond’s seminar and later became her research assistant. “[Desmond] was concerned with the history and cultural preservation of seeds. I learned seeds are a vessel for stories, history, and culture,” she said.
Desmond started exploring the potential of a university farm designated for the research and reproduction of rare seeds.
“The wisdom of seeds is very old,” Desmond said. “Native Americans and Indigenous people have been working to preserve seeds for hundreds of years, and yet, people who preserve seeds as heirlooms today are the minority. Today, we lean on industrial agriculture, but before that, seed saving was a practice everybody did so the seeds were adapted to local environments and soil types. With the change to industrialized farming, we lost the wisdom and technology of old seed stock.”
Desmond reached out to her colleague, Rubenstein, for support on the project.
Simultaneously, Rubenstein was already making efforts to get his students involved with farms in townships surrounding Princeton. He was intrigued by the fundamentals of mutualism, or how species work together to mutually thrive. For example, the “Three Sisters” approach grows three crops — maize, beans, and squash — on the same mound because they each benefit one another. Maize grows tall but requires minimal surface area, beans add nitrogen to the soil, and squash is a sturdy, dense crop that does not compete for light but instead provides shade, cooling the soil and keeping disease at bay.
Rubenstein’s interest in exploring and testing mutualism in conjunction with Desmond’s desire to repair seed stock provided the University with a compelling pitch, as both professors were willing to share a plot of land to conduct research, plant seeds, and offer students a place to serve and connect with community partners.
Since its opening in 2022, the farm has worked with a plethora of community partners including Bonnetta Adeeb, the founder of Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance which supports Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) gardeners in distributing heirloom seeds. They also work with Nate Kleinman, the co-director of Experimental Farm Network, which works to emphasize collaboration among farmers and plant breeding as a whole.
Through collaboration with Chief Vincent Mann — the Turtle Clan Chief of the Ramapough Lenape Nation — and Clan Mother Michaeline Picaro, the farm thrives with culturally based knowledge of seed stock and traditional farming practices native to Princeton and the surrounding area. Tomia MacQueen, the owner of Wildflower Farm; Chris Smith, the executive director of the Utopian Seed Project; and Scott Morgan of the Morganics Family Farm also played a role in transforming The Seed Farm into the seed sanctuary that it is today.
“The community partners bring up seeds that they feel they need for regeneration, and we partner with the organizations to learn the ways in which they need to be grown to maintain the necessary farming practices to keep the seeds organic, regenerative, and native to the land,” Desmond said. “While the seeds are in our care, we work with community collaborators to identify any questions the University may be able to investigate and answer. We also don’t hold back the seeds or keep them for ourselves. If the partners want them grown again, they’ll bring them back.”
While the community partners support the education of seed stewardship and cultural awareness, the farm relies on students and the faculty to tend the land.
Students seeing ‘ecology in action’ at The Seed Farm
Students have gotten involved through summer internships, research, and courses. Over the past two summers, there have been interns from the Pace Center’s RISE program and High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) fellows. Desmond and Rubenstein have both had student interns work on the farm.
This semester, Desmond is a mentor for Service Focus, a civic engagement program running from first-year spring to sophomore spring, and is once again teaching her freshman seminar, so her students have been helping at the farm throughout the fall. Community Action has also visited the farm annually since its initial opening in 2021.
Jules Mpano ’26 is a computer science B.S.E. student who interned on the farm this past summer after Adeeb visited his AAS200: Methods of Worldbuilding course. Adeeb talked about internship opportunities in the class, and Mpano recalled, “I knew from the start of last year that I wanted to do a service internship in the summer.” After learning about Adeeb’s work with the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance and her partnership with The Seed Farm, he was sold on applying.
During the summer, Mpano worked on the humanitarian efforts of researching heirloom seeds and building relationships with community partners through RISE. He also got to travel to Washington, D.C. with his research group to work on various farms for a week to learn and share different practices of organic farming with other agriculturists. “It changes the way the University does service,” Mpano said of The Seed Farm. “Community partners have a problem, they approach University faculty, and then we work on a solution. I got to learn more about food systems in the United States, which I hoped to learn when I applied.”
Another student intern, Natalie Wong ’25, an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) major, worked primarily on the Three Sisters Project testing mutualisms. “We tried different configurations of planting the three native crops to see how this would impact crop growth and health,” Wong said. “That was my primary job. I planted the seeds, watered them, and tended the land.”
“I loved the experience. I love field work, and I want to be in the land,” Wong continued. “Perspective is important in science. Talking to the Indigenous communities provided a unique lens to our research.” She recommends The Seed Farm to all EEB majors stating, “You get to watch ecology in action on the farm.”
Gina Talt, a project manager in food systems with the Office of Sustainability, helps to manage the day-to-day work at the farm — which includes overseeing the summer interns — and takes a large role in growing the heirloom seeds.
“I see a big change from when I see students start at the beginning of the summer to their reflections at the end,” Talt said. “I think all of them come away with a greater understanding of how food is produced and how tricky farming can be.”
“My favorite part is to empower students with new knowledge,” Talt added. “Even if they don’t work in agriculture going forward, the appreciation for local food and culturally significant food and the experience of working on the land stays with them.”
This past summer marks two seasons of running The Seed Farm. The program has sparked conversations about racial justice, environmental justice, seed stewardship, and agriculture in our community of scholars. To know The Seed Farm is to know the history of the land we learn on and the food we consume. After all, Desmond reminds us, “Those of us who care about local regional food systems have come to care about seeds.”
Ally Lloyd is a contributing Features writer for the ‘Prince.’
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