Montana State University

Student farm is green billboard for change

April 25, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Montana State University student Kaly Hess trims the tops on some of the 6,000 onions she and other students have planted for a student-run vegetable farm. The project aims to provide vegetables for the local food bank, act as a demonstration of local agriculture and educate the community about healthy eating. (MSU photo by Jay Thane.)    High-Res Available

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With two acres, a good idea and a lot of determination, a group of Montana State University students plan to grow and harvest tons of fresh vegetables this summer to feed those in need and educate the community about healthy eating and the value of local agriculture.

Towne's Harvest Garden is one project of the Friends of Local Foods, a student group that formed last fall to raise awareness about the value of locally grown food.

"At first, I thought we should try to grow something for the university's student food services," said Kaly Hess, an agroecology major from Helena and FLF president. "Something modest, like greens for the salad bars."

But the project quickly grew with permission to use two acres of the university's horticulture farm -- southeast of the Bozeman Chronicle building -- and $7,000 in support from the dean of agriculture, MSU's president and various departments.

In the past two months, students have planted from seed and nurtured more than 6,000 onions, hundreds of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cabbages, more than a dozen varieties of herbs and a long list of other vegetables in MSU's Plant Growth Center. In all, the farm will have more than 100 types of vegetables, greens and flowers.

The group partnered with the Gallatin Valley Food Bank to provide more than a quarter ton of fresh vegetables weekly. In exchange, the food bank is supporting two part-time student interns to act as nutrition educators to teach food bank customers and the community at large how to prepare greens and vegetables.

"There have been a lot of studies that link food banks to obesity," said Heather Grenier, program director for the Gallatin Valley Food Bank. "We get a lot of packaged and pre-processed foods that are often high in fat. We do get produce, some of it fresh, but our supply is limited. Through this partnership, we're hoping to provide five to six pounds of fresh vegetables to 125 families each week."

The students are selling 35 shares of their weekly vegetable harvest to the community for $400 per share. They also plan to have a vegetable cart on campus and sell at the Bogert Farmers' Market. The money will pay the salaries of two full-time student interns to work on the farm.

"Towne's will be a showcase for how someone could have a small, intensively managed farm anywhere," said David Baumbauer, one of the group's faculty advisers and Plant Growth Center manager. "There are lots of young people interested in agriculture, but the financial barriers to getting into traditional farming are insurmountable for most. However, small-scale gardens -- like Towne's -- and greenhouses offer an alternative by growing high-value produce for a local market."

But the farm is far more than just a way to grow vegetables; it's also a giant green billboard for messages about food and health, Hess said.

"This will be a classroom where people can learn how to grow their own food and take some control over what they eat and their health," Hess said. "Agricultural systems have gotten so large -- and distant -- that most people no longer know where their food comes from or how it was raised. We've lost that community connection so integral to food, health and an awareness of the land. Anyone who buys from us will be welcome to come to the farm anytime -- we encourage that."

Through the farm and other Friends of Local Foods projects, students will learn how to make better decisions about what they eat, said Alison Harmon, assistant professor of food nutrition and one of the group's advisers.

"When students come to campus, many of them are feeding themselves for the first time," Harmon said. "This project is a chance to educate students at a time when they're forming independent views on food. It's not just about eating healthy, but making informed choices about how our food purchases affect others in the world -- everyone from farm laborers in Chile to coffee growers in Ethiopia."

Throughout the summer, students, faculty and community members are welcome to visit the farm. Volunteer labor will be rewarded with fresh vegetables.

"One of the end goals of this project is to create a space where members of both the campus and the Bozeman community can come together and learn from each other," Hess said.

For more information about Towne's Harvest Garden, or to purchase a share of vegetables, visit http://ag.montana.edu/plantgrowth/TownesHarvestCSA.htm or e-mail Friends of Local Foods at MSU.FLF@gmail.com.

Contact: Alison Harmon, (406) 994-6338 or harmon@montana.edu; David Baumbauer, (406) 994-2231 or baumbauer@montana.edu; Kaly Hess, (406) 459-7217 or kaly.hess@gmail.com; Heather Grenier, (406) 586-7600 or hgrenier@hrdc9.org.