Write stuff: Hallett takes on food, farming challenges through action, words

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — While Steve Hallett’s journey to Purdue University took “a rather meandering path,” as he describes it, the idea to start a student farm at Purdue occurred more suddenly.

“I, fairly suddenly, became aware that I was working at one of the great agriculture colleges in the world and, also, a college that had a number of farms — but students didn’t seem to have that many opportunities for hands-on learning on farms, didn’t have access to the existing ones and probably needed that,” he said.

Hallett also saw a need for students to learn about farming and food production in a way that, in 2010, did not seem to be a priority at post-secondary institutions.

“The other thing, at the time, and more so now, I recognized was missing here in the Midwest was education in diversified farming,” he said.

The one thing that could bring all of those needs together was a small farm. So, Hallett and a group of Purdue staff and students did just that.

“We got a chain saw and we hacked the bush honeysuckle out of a farm and we basically started to farm,” Hallett said.

The farm was unlike anything else in the Purdue agriculture program. It was a small farm producing vegetables where students, then and now, do the bulk of the work, from planting to weeding, harvesting and marketing.

As the farm grew produce, it also grew a new program, the Sustainable Food and Farming Systems Program.

“Once we started to farm, we created a couple of classes that still exist and are called Small Farm Experience. We built the farm partly using these classes and student experience,” Hallett said.

Hallett’s journey to Purdue has taken him from northern England to Australia and Canada and, since 2001, Indiana.

Growing up in the north of England, Hallett had a background in vegetable production through the allotment garden that his family had.

“My grandfather bought a few acres in the back of the house, between the first and second world wars and that became allotments. My dad was really interested in that and taught me quite a lot there,” he said.

“It would be most similar to a community garden system here. I do have some of that gardening background, but I have to be honest, when I was a kid, I didn’t realize it.”

Gardening might be in his past, but Hallett is focused on the future and especially when it comes to topics like sustainability and environmental protection.

“Universities like Purdue, land-grant universities, generally tend to produce a lot of students trained to fulfill existing roles in the industry,” he said.

“I feel as though the industry and the landscape needs to change. Diversification involves more small farms in commodity crop areas.”

The student farm has had its ups and downs, including a move six years ago from the original site to a new piece of land.

Hallett sees those ups and downs and challenges as reflective of the challenges that small farmers face on a larger scale.

“It’s a journey. It’s a journey for all small farmers. We are very different than most small farms because we are part of an institution,” he said.

“The economic landscape we live in is not conducive to small farms and local operations, with so much price pressure coming out of produce from California, for example, where the landscape and the people are exploited and prices are held low.

“It’s very difficult to farm ethically, either for the environment or for people because of those price pressures. So, there are a lot of challenges in trying to maintain a small farm in big farm country and that’s true for all small farmers, not just us.”

Hallett stays inspired by the belief that the work that is being done on the Purdue Student Farm and what students are learning is moving the needle on sustainability and small farms, both within and outside the Purdue community.

“I hope so. People generally remain quite siloed. People are often too busy to see the other programs around them and that is true of me as well as of anyone else,” he said.

“I would say, yes, we have moved the ball a little, but the structural forces that remain are quite significant.”

While some of those hurdles, including a financial landscape where private corporations have more and more control, might seem daunting, Hallett is determined to keep talking about and teaching the concepts that are so important to him.

“It’s not a great difficulty for me to keep going forward. My general philosophy toward change in the Midwest is steady and persistent,” he said.

“Even though overhaul doesn’t seem possible, constantly pushing in the right direction is always the right thing to do.”

The part that Hallett says he enjoys most about what he does is “nothing in particular.”

“I like that it is so varied. I like to be on the farm. I like to write. I like to read. I like to teach,” he said.

That variety has allowed Hallett to write two non-fiction books, “Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future,” published in 2011, and “The Efficiency Trap: Finding a Better Way to Achieve a Sustainable Energy Future,” published in 2013, as well as a book of poetry, “A Life for a Life.”