In the summer of 2021, Abingdon-Avon High School 2017 graduate Cheyanne Dierickx completed an internship in the Local Food Systems and and Small Farms unit at the University of Illinois at Champaign.
“Throughout my years in college, I had various internships and jobs related to sustainability in agriculture, one being at the Sustainable Student Farm which Erin Harper helped with. Food Systems Unit 13 and small farms. So that professional relationship continued when I applied to be his summer intern with the extension,” Dierickx said.
Dierickx is in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and studying Technical Systems Management in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.
She is satisfied with her internship experience with Illinois Extension. Dierickx had to create a project during his internship.
“Erin had the idea for this project even before I was offered the intern position,” Dierickx explained.
After the department received a flatbed trailer, Harper came up with the idea of creating a portable product washing and packing station for educational and functional purposes.
“She knew that I had many technical and creative skills, as well as a solid knowledge of fruit and vegetable production, making me the ideal student to tackle this project,” Dierickx said.
The 27’x8′ flatbed trailer allowed Dierickx to use his technical skills as well as his ability to make beautiful educational signage, and also to combine this with his knowledge of fruits, vegetables and agriculture.
After the idea for the project was born, Dierickx had to identify a need for the project. Dierickx thought the project could be used in community and school gardens, and could be showcased at county and state fairs, and to educate the general public on post-harvest food safety protocol. She also wanted farmers to actually be able to use it. From that moment, Dierickx conducted an investigation.
“The first step in creating the survey was to identify what information we wanted to collect, i.e. what the purpose of this survey was. Erin and I discussed and concluded that we wanted to have a general idea of what types of food safety measures farms in the region were integrating into their systems, barriers to implementing certain food safety tools and methods, and whether a portable washing and packing station would be beneficial for them or for other farmers they know.
The design process
The next stage of the project was the design process.
“The design process started with a lot of research. I needed to know what types of facilities existed like this, if any. I also needed to learn a lot about construction, rules and food safety regulations, the ideal design of washing stations, and the post-harvest needs of various fruits and vegetables. I conducted some on-site interviews with Matt Turino (farm manager at the sustainable student farm), John Williams (farm manager at Solia Gratia) and Kaitie Adams (farm manager at Savanna Institute) to get their thoughts on the project and any recommendations they had for the design,” Dierickx explained.
Affordability, accessibility and feasibility
Dierickx then had to condense the information into three elements.
“The research provided me with an overwhelming amount of information, which might be difficult for farmers to digest to start a project like this on their own. Therefore, I have condensed it into three design elements main ones: affordability (can a farmhouse create this project on a budget?), accessibility (can all essential aspects of the wash pack be effectively, efficiently and inclusively integrated with the space available, and can the materials be purchased in places most farmers have access to?) and feasibility (can the average farmer easily replicate this project with knowledge and skills they already have?) “, she said.
Then came the construction process. This included building aspects such as measurements and math, selecting quality materials, purchasing products, and learning new building tools/strategies. Did Dierickx receive help during the process?
“I received help through this process from Erin Harper (Local Food Systems and Small Farm Extension Educator), Jennifer Banda (Local Food Systems and Small Farm Program Coordinator) and Matt Turino (Farm Manager at Sustainable Student Farm) when needed which was much appreciated, however I did the majority on my own,” she explained.
There were a few things Dierickx needed to keep in mind during the build process.
“One important thing to keep in mind was the amount of wood used, not only because of the current price, but also the wood is porous and can harbor bacteria, which is not good for safety. . . . Another aspect that needed to be kept in mind was the durability of the materials used. We wanted to make sure that the structure would last a long time and not start to fall apart after a few uses,” he said. she declared.
In addition to undertaking this large project, Dierickx is majoring in Technical Systems Management with an emphasis on agricultural safety and health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his master’s work focuses on agricultural stress and the mental health of farmers and herders.
A mental health advocate
“I have always been an advocate for mental health, but I never thought I could incorporate it into my academic interests in sustainable farming systems. That changed when I took a course in safety and health work taught by Dr. Josie Rudolphi and started working as an undergraduate research assistant in his farm stress lab group….Farming is the most dangerous occupation in terms of injury incident rates, and this has social and economic implications, meaning that our food system cannot be sustainable and hold up for the long term unless we address the safety and health of our farmers , both mentally and physically.”
She further added that there is a strong relationship between poor mental health (anxiety, depression, stress, etc.) and injury rates in agriculture.
“Stress is a huge risk factor when it comes to injury, and injury also contributes to stress levels, so it’s a cycle that might be hard to break for some farmers,” she said.
Dierickx also included statistics regarding farm stress and mental health:
- Young farmers and ranchers report significant rates of mental health issues: 60% report symptoms of depression and 70% report symptoms of anxiety.
- Anxiety and depression are two to three times more common among women farmers than in the general population.
- Migrant farm workers who have been injured on the job are seven times more likely to be depressed.
Dierickx resides in Urbana with her boyfriend, her dog and many houseplants. His hobbies include gardening/plants (indoor and outdoor), hiking with his dog, and lifting weights.