Montana State University

MSU student farm exceeds expectations in first year

September 4, 2007 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service


Matt Larsen, a nutrition major from West Fargo, N.D., harvests lettuce at MSU's student-run Towne's Harvest Garden. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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A two-acre vegetable farm run by Montana State University students has been enormously successful in its first year, according to students and faculty members in charge of the farm.

"It's definitely exceeded expectations as far as production goes," said Alison Harmon, assistant professor of food nutrition and one of the group's advisers.

The farm, known as Towne's Harvest Garden, is one project of the Friends of Local Foods, a student group that formed nearly a year ago to raise awareness about healthy eating and the importance of locally grown food.

The group's initial plan for the farm -- to grow greens or other vegetables for the university's Food Service -- was more modest than what Towne's Harvest Garden has become.

"It seemed like we had resources to grow some food, but the idea quickly became bigger," said Kaly Hess, an agroecology major from Helena and the group's president.

Last spring, students began growing more than 100 types of vegetables, including onions, tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, peppers, kale, cabbages, leeks and green beans.

The students sold about 40 shares of their vegetable harvest to the community for $400 per share, and in return, shareholders received a weekly supply of fresh vegetables. The group also partnered with the Gallatin Valley Food Bank to provide thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables for the Food Bank's clients. In addition, the group has sold produce at Bozeman's weekly Bogert Farmers' Market.

By all accounts, the program has been a success.

Mid-way through the farm's growing season, about 3,000 pounds of food had been harvested and distributed, said Matt Larsen, a senior nutrition major from West Fargo, N.D., and one of the student interns.

"We've had a phenomenal growing season," said David Baumbauer, one of the group's faculty advisers and the Plant Growth Center manager.

"I don't think we've ever said, 'There's not enough of this (type of vegetable),'" added Hess.

Community members who bought weekly shares of the produce have also been enthusiastic about the program.

"The vegetables last all week long," said Heather Bentz, assistant dean in the College of Arts and
Architecture. "I just love it."

"I feel like I'm getting a good value," she added.

Getting fresh food from the farm has also been important to clients at the Gallatin Valley Food Bank, according to Heather Grenier, the Food Bank's program director. Mid-way through the farm's growing season, about 1,400 pounds of food had been delivered to the Food Bank, which was double what they had expected to receive.

"It's been a huge asset for our customers to have fresh produce," Grenier said. "The food has been great quality, and it's brought increased dignity to our programs to have fresh produce."

Running the farm has been a group effort. Four student interns were hired to work throughout the summer and into the fall. Two of the interns' salaries have been paid through sales of vegetable shares, while two were paid by the Food Bank to act as nutrition educators for Food Bank customers and the community at large. The group's faculty advisers have provided valuable information and advice, students said. In addition, a core group of volunteers have helped the interns plant, weed and harvest throughout the growing season.

The farm, which is located southeast of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle building on the university's horticulture farm, has also been supported financially by the dean of agriculture, MSU's president and various departments.

With just a few weeks of harvesting left, talk is turning to the farm's future. Shareholders like Bentz are sad to see the season come to an end but are enthusiastic about buying a share of vegetables again next year. The Gallatin Valley Food Bank remains excited about the program and could distribute even more produce next year, Grenier said. Students and faculty advisers would like to see the farm continue as it did this year, but they would also like to expand the program by fulfilling its original goal of growing food for the university's Food Service.

The enthusiasm people voice for the project reflects one of its leaders' biggest goals: educating the community about the value of local agriculture.

"In Montana and in this valley, we have the ability to grow and produce a lot of food," Hess said. "But I think we also have lost the connection to where our food comes from."

"It's very positive for people here to embrace and reconnect with their food system," she added.

For more information about Towne's Harvest Garden, visit http://ag.montana.edu/plantgrowth/TownesHarvestCSA.htm.

Alison Harmon (406) 994-6338 or harmon@montana.edu; Kaly Hess, (406) 459-7217 or kaly.hess@gmail.com