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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Study of Urban Agriculture and Sustainability Grows at University of Washington Student-led Farm

January 11, 2013 |

Though students are expected to learn about sustainable farming when volunteering at the University of Washington Farm, for some, their volunteer experience cultivates confidence, leadership skills, and friendships within a close-knit community of students who just enjoy gardening and sharing wholesome food.

The UW Farm owes its beginnings to a group of graduate students who wanted to garden, says Rachel Stubbs, farm coordinator for the Center for Urban Horticulture (CUH). With that humble start in 2004, the farm has grown to become the campus center for the practice and study of urban agriculture and sustainability. Though it is only a third of an acre on the main campus and half an acre at CUH, “people think it’s this huge thing,” Rachel says.

When one of the farm’s founding members, Elizabeth Wheat, became involved with other projects, students assumed the leadership role of the farm, making it a solely student-run organization. Ten student volunteers manage to make time working on the farm between their academic and personal lives, but in spite of these students’ dedication, the farm depends heavily on volunteers to keep it running. “We [are] never quite where we would like to be,” says Caitlin Budd, farm coordinator of the Botany Greenhouse.

At the farm, sustainable agriculture is practiced through the purchase of organic seeds, no pesticide use, crop rotation, and the planting of cover crops like fava beans, crimson clover, legumes and others. Because pesticides aren’t used, plants are lost to pests, and students have experimented with companion plantings such as marigolds with turnips to stem the loss. The slugs are dealt with by beer traps. “Lots of compost” is used to grow the plants, Rachel adds, and they have made connections with locals to supply animal waste. Their farm also has worm bins and bee hives.

Crops are grown year-round, with turnips, brussel sprouts, kale, rainbow chard, and carrots grown during the winter, and spring sees a planting of beets, carrots, lettuce, kale, bok choy, and tomatoes. They have tried to grow squash but it doesn’t fare well with the mildew. Produce grown at the main campus site is given to farm volunteers or used in pizza bakes. At the CUH site, this year’s produce was sold for the first time to a campus dining hall and market, a practice that will continue. Each site has a different management goal, with the smaller main campus site being used for experimentation of crops while the CUH site is used to learn how to grow staple crops like carrots.

The farm is financially sustained through revenue received from giving tours to UW classes, from funds from the Biology department, produce sales, and donations. In 2009 they received a grant of nearly $80,000 from the Campus Sustainability Fund to start the CUH site. The UW also provides other support by allowing use of the Botany greenhouse to grow seedlings. Caitlin and Rachel credit Doug Ewing, the Greenhouse Manager, with providing helpful advice and guidance which is appreciated because “a lot of people [who join the farm] haven’t done much with gardening,” Rachel says. Farm expenses include supplies and seeds.

Though there are 10-15 regulars who attend weekly Dirty Dozen work parties, another 30 students who volunteer each quarter to earn serving learning credit, and a regular work party of 3rd– graders from a local elementary school, there is always a need for more volunteers. And another difficulty in relying on students is that the crop calendar and academic calendar don’t sync; during the summer when plants need to be watered and harvested, nearly all the student volunteers have returned home for vacation.

Another challenge of running the farm is student turnover, so “we try to do retreats [and] work together” to pass along information, Rachel says. It’s all about “finding younger people enthusiastic about farming, [and] showing them the ropes,” Caitlin adds.

Future goals of the farm include developing more academic connections, because volunteering at the farm is “such a great part of the academic experience,” Rachel says. For her, being able to see concepts, such as the role of nitrogen, discussed in class and then practiced on the farm is educational. Caitlin would like to see a paid position, especially if the farm expands to include another acre at the new Mercer dorm, and the development of a long-term plan for the farm.

Both women intend to keep sustainable agriculture in their lives. Caitlin wants to find a job in sustainable agriculture. For Rachel’s part, her “favorite part is seeing the education,” and she wants to become involved in farm and garden education.

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