The high-tunnel green peppers of horticulture specialist Sanjun Gu, Ph.D. didn’t know that a pandemic was happening.

Neither did the cucumbers, eggplant, tomato, watermelons or cantaloupe that he and his research team had planted at the University Farm in March, the usual start of the growing season.

The team’s plan was to test the ideal growing conditions of these common vegetable crops to see if they grow better with one layer of plastic on top of the soil to keep it warmer, or two layers. The results would go out to farmers statewide, with Gu and the team sharing the hows and whys to help them become more efficient, profitable growers.

Then, came COVID-19, sheltering in place and the necessity that students – including student volunteers and student research assistants – leave campus.

This month, the first harvest came in, and despite the university being shut down of all but its essential workers, the growing and donating went on.

Typically, the farm raises tons of produce, the result of projects that faculty, staff and students are working on, and donates about 10,000 pounds a year. Most of the donations will go to the farm’s community partners, Share the Harvest and the Out of the Garden Project.

John Kimes of the University Farm helps load produce into boxes with Linda Anderson of the community group Share the Harvest. The farm donates regularly to the group.

“We donate most of it to those two groups, and then give away a fair amount here on campus that’s not included in that figure,” says John Kimes, ANR horticulture farm manager.

In this most atypical year, however, those donations were even more important.

“It’s extra busy with so many people out of work this year, and so many other places are closed now,” said Linda Anderson, chairperson of the nonprofit Share the Harvest, an organization that donates fresh produce to agencies throughout the city that prepare meals or keep food pantries. “The farm does such a beautiful job of meeting this need.”

Workers from those organizations bring their own crates to pick up produce and transport it off the farm. At the farm, Kimes – currently working with a staff of three others – weighs and logs all the produce donated.

“It’s such a bonus to get fresh produce – most of the people who use a food pantry expect to receive cans,” Anderson said. “Instead, we give out fresh food from the farm, and we are thankful for our community partners.”