UT Microfarm thrives under new leadership

Kate Dannenmaier

A few blocks east of I-35, surrounded by tailgates and University office buildings, lies a little piece of farmland where students grow tomatoes, sweet potatoes and lavender. Since it was established in 2012, the UT Microfarm has grown from a Green Fee project with potential to a sanctuary for students.

Development assistant Stephanie Hamborsky, a Plan II and biology junior, said working on the farm helps her relax.

“It provides a lot of stress relief to come out here, take a break from being indoors and studying, and connect with nature,” Hamborsky said. “And do something that a lot of kids in our generation have no experience with.” 

Development director Dominique Vyborny, a supply chain management senior, said, when the farm was founded in 2012, its main purpose was to give students an opportunity to learn about where their food comes from. Before she became a student at UT, Vyborny started a community garden in her backyard and worked at the Natural Gardener, an organic garden center in southwest Austin.

“The ability to learn how to garden was given to me freely, and so I truly try to influence a culture of passing that on here at the farm,” Vyborny said. 

Katie Lewis, the farm manager and biology sophomore, said, before working on the farm she had never tried to garden organically. While the UT Microfarm isn’t certified organic, it rarely uses pesticides and implements organic gardening techniques Vyborny learned at the Natural Gardener.

“It’s a lot of improvisation,” Lewis said. “Dominique [Vyborny] tells us what she knows, and she knows a lot. But, basically, we’re just figuring it out for ourselves. It’s exciting because I don’t know everything, but I’m still learning, and every day I get better.”

Hamborsky said the most surprising thing she learned at the farm was how much work goes into growing food.

“Even on this fifth-of-an-acre piece of land, there’s so much work to be done,” Hamborsky said. “It’s just amazing to think about these large-scale agricultural systems that require so much work and how little we really appreciate our food.”

The UT Microfarm also provides research opportunities for students. The shed on the farm was a student architecture project, and the farm’s entire irrigation system was a project by a student investigating different irrigation techniques. 

“I’m really interested in building a rainwater collection system here,” Hamborsky said. “I think that’s a really integral part of having a sustainable system.” 

The farm sells most of its produce at its on-site farm stand, Hope Farmer’s Market, and to the University dining halls. It also donates to a local food shelter. Lewis said it is important for people to see where their food is coming from.

“It’s not coming from some huge commercial thing way out in California where you don’t know what’s going into it or how it was grown,” Lewis said. “You can see where plants are grown, and you can see them on the vine, and you can see them being harvested, and then you can buy them and take them home.”