story by Pamela Hill with submitted photo, special to The City Wire
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on the University of Arkansas student-led garden project that feeds the local community.
FAYETTEVILLE – It was hard for the perky strawberry blonde to contain her excitement. The tiniest green buds had just burst through on the healthy sweet bell pepper plant.
The spring 2012 semester at the University of Arkansas had ended the week before but Emmy Crossfield was still on campus – still in the dirt. She’d stayed to help tend the campus garden that she and about two dozen others started on the Fayetteville campus this spring after months of planning and almost a year after another student did detailed research into the feasibility of such a project.
“I came out here today and was so excited, Crossfield said, pulling back leaves to reveal the beginnings of bell peppers. The jalapeno plant next to it already had peppers ready to pick.
Crossfield and other students will help summer garden manager Jonathan McArthur tend beds through the summer, harvesting half of the yield for the UA’s Full Circle Food Pantry, which provides food to students, staff and faculty in need.
Crossfield, a biochemistry major from Little Rock, didn’t grow up with a family garden. It wasn’t until she studied abroad in Germany that she became interested in growing food. Berlin had a city garden, she said. She also visited another site that had an after-school garden for children.
But it was another student’s study abroad that first planted the seed. Sammi Jones went to Scotland in 2010. She’d taken a community gardening class under Dr. Curt R. Rom, professor of horticulture and director of the Bumpers College Honors Program, before she went, but she saw it in action in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was excited.
“I emailed him (Rom) and he said, ‘I have the perfect honors thesis for you,’” Jones said.
FROM IDEA TO THESIS
Jones began to research the feasibility of starting a garden on the UA campus in fall 2010 and completed it in fall 2011. She visited campus gardens in Missouri, Conway and four in Texas. She did an online survey of 100 public universities with at least 20,000 students. She got responses from 88 campuses in the United States and Canada with gardens
“No research had been done on what it looked like, who utilizes it,” Jones said.
Rom praised her hard work and the results.
“She interviewed the chancellor, the provost, the chancellor’s wife, the vice provost for student affairs, deans,” Rom said. “Particularly at the highest levels, she was warmly received.”
Rom said only a few mid-level administrators seemed opposed to the idea.
“There are probably some real true academics who would say, ‘It’s not a classroom activity, and why waste time and resources doing it?’ I believe in service-learning activities. I believe it’s a valuable part of the learning experience, hands-on experience. A lot of those lessons, I can’t teach in a classroom,” Rom said.
Jones said she knew it was important to be thorough and do it right to prevent mistakes made in previous attempts at campus gardening.
“I wanted to make sure we could create a garden that would be long lasting for students,” Jones said.
Jones graduated in December – her degree is in environmental, soil and water science – so she didn’t see the garden she envisioned come to fruition. But she’s still not far from fresh food. She got a job soon after graduation working with the Fayetteville Public School District’s sustainability director and is focused on food nutrition for students and waste production.
“I’m really interested in helping people relate to their food and agriculture and where their food comes from,” Jones said.
FROM THESIS TO MISSION
Crossfield decided to bring Jones’ idea to life as the capstone project to complete her minor in sustainability.
The hardest part was finding a suitable location, she said. Even though the end spot between residence halls at Maple Hill doesn’t get ideal lighting, the plants have thrived in the 50-by-11-foot garden.
Crossfield said the experienced GroGreen members were invaluable and haven’t seemed to mind that she’s not experienced in gardening. “I come out here and say what should we do?”
Leah Malvar, a horticulture major from Los Angeles, became involved in GroGreen, a student-led organic farming organization, after transferring to the UA last fall and now serves as its president.
“I was looking for an active club, relevant to my studies, where I could meet other people who shared my passion for all things green,” Malvar said.
Crossfield said both the university and Fayetteville have been really supportive.
The Residence Interhall Council donated more than $700 and is expected to donate $600 more for additional supplies. The Associated Student Government gave the garden project about $300 she said.
“The stone bed bricks were all donated from ABC-Brick, Ozark Natural Foods donates food for our meetings,” Malvar said, “and we even got a bed full of super fancy organic growing media from Nitron (in Johnson). If you know anything about gardening, that stuff is gold!”
An irrigation system also was donated. Malvar marvels that last year the group didn’t even have a plot.
“It's been an amazing experience! The biggest lesson I've taken is just how easy it is to grow your own food,” Malvar said. “Our plot is not very big, nor does it have ideal light conditions, yet we've managed to grow an astounding variety of produce.”
The students are raising parsley, spinach, cucumbers, broccoli, jalapenos, bell peppers, sweet basil, Thai basil, oregano, onions, rosemary, sage, and some flowers.
Megan Lankford, another student involved with the gardens, wasn’t born with a green thumb.
“I actually killed every plant I had until I was 24 or 25,” Lankford said.
Amazed by her neighbor’s garden, Lankford learned from her how to plant and grow her own things. “When the seeds came up, I was just in love. I just thought it was amazing.”
Rom said a campus garden can serve as a hands-on, co-curricular tool, build community, and allow students to engage in altruism.
“Those are all valuable aspects and they’re a little inseparable,” Rom said.
Not everyone will take a horticulture class, Rom said, but anyone can take part in the garden and learn about growing food. And a sense of ownership in the garden helps build a sense of community, pride and trust, he said. Since the garden project has committed to donating half its harvest to the pantry, the students also learn altruism.
“They need to understand there’s something more important than self,” Rom said.
Lankford, a junior horticulture major with a minor in sustainability, grew up in Oxford, N.Y., and moved to Fayetteville with her husband last year from Carterville, Mo. She’s doing her own capstone project in which she encourages others to plant an extra plant and donate the harvest from that plant or section of garden. She’s also involved in projects to collect unsold food from the farmers’ market to donate to food banks. But one evening a week this summer is dedicated to tending the campus garden with Malvar.
“We chase the bunny away, make sure everything’s all right. With gardening, you can’t leave it sitting,” Lankford said. (A small rabbit has been an enthusiastic supporter of the garden.)
“I’m proud of the students and their persistence. There were a number of times they were told, ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘It’s not appropriate for us to do this.’” Rom said. “They persevered, took a logical approach, and tried to build support.”
Rom said he’s already gotten emails from some staff who would like to see the campus garden become a real community garden, where people could rent a section to grow food for themselves.
“I hope it grows into something larger to engage other people,” Rom said. “That becomes a real community developing kind of thing. I’d like to see it someday where we would have acres of land where students and faculty and staff could garden side by side. All of a sudden they’re equal. They can share a gardening heritage, swap things that they’re growing. It builds community in profound ways, builds loyalty.”
Spencer Fiser, a horticulture major from Springdale, came to the garden one evening just to check on it, even though it wasn’t his scheduled day to tend it. He not only helps tend the campus garden, but also plants his own – some of which he donates to Lankford’s project. Both gardens are giving him practical experience for what he eventually hopes to do – create a community-supported garden where people will pay for a set amount of produce at the beginning of the gardening season and he will grow it for them.
While Fiser, like many of the other students involved in the campus garden, has a career goal of food production, not all of them do.
“This group is incredibly diverse, with all sorts of educational interests: sociology, drama, biochemistry,” Malvar said. “Some of the members I've spoken with live in dorms and just want a place to garden. This is a totally student-driven effort.”
Crossfield has enjoyed the social benefits of being part of this diverse group. “I’ve met a bunch of awesome people. I don’t normally get to know horticulture people. I’m usually stuck in the biochem lab,” Crossfield said. “I kind of got into for the community aspect of it. Now, I’m getting more interested in the plants than the people.”
Crossfield laughs at that last statement, but it is hard for her to hide her excitement about the healthy foliage and flowering buds at her feet.
The only thing she’s less than enthusiastic about is the little green gnome someone keeps placing amongst the plants.
“That’s the creepiest thing,” she said on spotting him beneath a plant leaf.