A new student sustainability center in the works at Southern Oregon University will serve as a community education and gathering space, a multifaceted organic farm and a resource for student research in environmental science and business.
The first phase of construction on the project began this month on a 5-acre field at the corner of Walker Avenue and East Main Street in Ashland, behind ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum.
Students will begin planting fruit trees and a large garden this winter and hope to have outdoor classrooms constructed before spring, said Shaun Franks, who's a senior majoring in business with a minor in environmental studies at SOU.
"Our goal for this has always been for it to be for a blank canvas," said Franks, 27, of Ashland. "Students will shape the development of the sustainability center long after we are gone.
"It's really about developing student leaders."
Using the sustainability center and its farm as a model for fighting local food insecurity, Franks led a team of SOU students to top honors during last year's Oregon Social Business Challenge. Another SOU team's solution to increasing the availability of local food, called closed-loop aquaponics, took third place at the competition, and its design will eventually be put to use at the sustainability center, Franks said.
SOU business professor Steve Schein played an important role in the development of Franks' food production model into the sustainability center, he said.
If everything goes as hoped, by the end of 2018, the sustainability center will feature a residence, on-site irrigation, compost areas, greenhouses, washing and packing facilities, an outdoor kitchen, outbuildings, public gathering spaces, restrooms and solar panel arrays, according to SOU's design proposal for the center.
An old farmhouse that stands on the property will be renovated over the next several years and eventually provide housing for student interns, meeting space and a downstairs art gallery, according to the proposal. Franks said the farmhouse will be an exemplary model for how energy-efficient and sustainably built a structure can be.
"We're excited about it, it's so incredible that the students are going to build this through their research and their practicum ... it will take a long time, but the advantage of that is that they will be able to develop it at every step through their own research and inquiry," said Vince Smith, a professor of environmental studies and social sciences at SOU.
Smith said there is an agreement with the university that most, if not all, of the food grown on the farm will be sent to food services and integrated into student meals.
"It has a large part to do with food insecurity on our campus," he said. "We have a number of students on our campus who are food insecure, who don't know where their next meal will come from."
Smith said he already has students who want to develop portions of the sustainability center as part of their capstone projects. And he expects the center to mesh well with SOU's new "Green House" model, a student research-driven academic approach to solving local hunger issues.
"It's taken a lot of hard work, time and a lot of money," said Samantha Pennington-Vrsek, a junior at SOU.
Pennington-Vrsek, a 23-year-old environmental studies major, also serves as the student government's director of sustainability.
She thinks the sustainability center will grow to showcase what SOU students are doing to advance sustainable initiatives, not only in agriculture, but in business and community, too.
"It's definitely going to be a place for student entrepreneurship and business ... but a big part of it for me is creating awareness around what we're doing and getting not only young people, but people past college age involved," Pennington-Vrsek said. "We'll be working hard at creating a really good sustainable system so that people don't have to start over from scratch every year."
Construction and development of the center will be paid for largely by the "green tag" fee students pay each term. Students voted last year to set aside a portion of the fee to support the sustainability center.
According to the university design proposal, about $200,000 should be acquired from the fee to support the sustainability center through 2017.
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.