From planting a vegetable garden on campus to creating a source of alternative energy in Honduras, Virginia Tech students are developing ways to help local, regional, and global community-based farms be profitable and sustainable while remaining dedicated to environmental stewardship.
These students are among the first to pursue a minor in civic agriculture and food systems, an innovative program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that blends classroom and hands-on learning.
Courses required for the minor range from ecological agricultural practices to comprehensive strategies that address food security. Students learn how locally grown food is produced, processed, and distributed within communities to boost local economies and promote a healthy and sustainable source of food. Farmers markets, community gardens, and community-supported agriculture — an arrangement in which customers prepay and receive a box of seasonal produce from a local farmer — are all forms of civic agriculture.
The idea for the minor sparked in 2008, when Susan Clark, then associate professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, took a group of students to Perryville, Ark., to spend a week at a Heifer International ranch, a nonprofit organization that works to feed the hungry. Afterward, students asked for a program at Virginia Tech that addresses the economic, political, social, and cultural issues related to the community-based food production process.
A team of faculty and staff members, students, and community partners developed the program that calls on educators from multiple disciplines within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to teach collaboratively. The minor is open to students outside the college, as well.
The program attracts students who want to learn about sustainable agriculture and apply what they learn to real-life situations. In fall 2010, 21 students enrolled in the inaugural program; that number jumped to 44 in 2012. They are required to do a minimum of 10 hours of fieldwork per course in addition to their studies.
“The civic agriculture minor is a blending of strengths that encourages passionate young people to do something real and tactile,” said Chelsea Graves, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and minors in horticulture and civic agriculture.
Graves took a job with Virginia Tech’s Dining Services as the garden education and outreach coordinator at Kentland Farm. In 2011, the university farm provided 30,000 pounds of fresh produce to campus dining centers, including the Farms and Fields Project in Owens Food Court, where diners enjoy locally grown seasonal, organic, and sustainable foods. Graves expects to increase that amount to 40,000 by the end of the harvest season in 2012.
At the farm, Graves tolerates the sun’s intense heat while planting long rows of organic fruits and vegetables at the farm. Often, her back hurts from bending and lifting heavy crates. Yet, she said she takes pride in cultivating an awareness of the benefits of locally grown food.
“I’m doing something bigger than life itself,” she said. “I have the world’s most beautiful office. Every day, I say, ‘good morning,’ to the rising sun.”
Jeremy Rommel of Centreville, Va., a senior majoring in humanities, science, and environment in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said the civic agriculture minor has become a cornerstone of his studies at Virginia Tech.
“I’m in a minor that fulfills my goal of enriching my spiritual connection to the earth while challenging me with ideas that are constantly evolving,” Rommel said as he took a break from cutting wood for a shed he was building at the Historic Smithfield Plantation.
He said he likes learning about food sovereignty, the trend of moving away from an industrialized, market-driven food system toward local community farms.
“It’s all about putting the control of the food system into the hands of the people,” Rommel said.
The students’ ideas and enthusiasm inspire Jenny Schwanke, garden coordinator of Blacksburg’s Hale-YMCA Community Garden, which is one of the programs’ community partners. There, civic agriculture students prepare garden plots, build raised planting beds, and tend to the orchard, among other tasks.
Schwanke said hands-on learning lends itself to conversation and shared learning — the framework for the civic agriculture minor.
“If students can acquire knowledge and skills to effectively restore community food sheds, their futures — and those of communities here and abroad — will reap the benefits.”
Students in the civic agriculture and food systems minor helped residents in rural Honduras develop ways to improve their farms. Watch a video about their experiences.
Chelsea Graves, a 2012 graduate with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, was featured in this video when she was the student farm manager at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm.
Capstone projects, a collaborative effort between the students and community partners, are a critical part of the civic agriculture and food systems minor. They offer students a chance to put their classroom knowledge and practical experience to work.
Past projects in Blacksburg, Va., include the Hale-YMCA Community Garden and the the Historic Smithfield Plantation’s kitchen garden.
The students created a video gallery that details their projects.
Rial Tombes, a 2012 graduate with a degree in environmental policy and planning and a minor in civic agriculture, devoted a spring break to working on projects through Heifer International, an Arkansas-based nonprofit organization that works to end poverty and hunger. She also helped establish the 15-acre Hale-YMCA Community Garden. Tombes won the Aspire! Award for Ut Prosim from the Division of Student Affairs.
Three other civic agriculture students won awards at the 2012 Engagement Showcase for their capstone projects.
Chelsea Graves, a 2012 graduate who majored in interdisciplinary studies, and Caitlin Miller, a 2012 graduate who majored in crop, soil and environmental sciences, won first place for their project, “Blooms, Bees & Beneficials: Farmscaping the Hale-YMCA Community Garden.”
Jeremy Mauck, a 2012 graduate who majored in environmental policy and planning, won third place for his project, “Grape Expectations — Grape Growing and Community Building with Rolling Fork Farm.”
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