Students' eyes grow wide as they spy the low prices on fresh, organic vegetables from a 5-acre garden at Southern Oregon University: 50 cents a bunch for lettuce, kale, cabbage, chard and collard greens.
Not only is the new garden offering vegetables at about one-sixth the price of local markets, it's providing students with hands-on experience running a Learning Living Laboratory and selling the produce in front of the Stevenson Union every Wednesday.
"We're so passionate about it. We use it to offer accessible, affordable, healthful food and showcase sustainability that everyone can be part of," says Mitra Sticklen, interim associate director of the laboratory-garden.
The garden, started last January on an empty field on Walker Avenue next to ScienceWorks, is open to volunteers from the school or the community who are given produce for their labor. The Raider Farm Stand sells produce at deep discounts to students and at market prices to faculty and staff.
"It's really exciting to see students out here selling fresh produce they grew at our farm," says Kyle Riggs, an SOU grounds crewman who helped build the garden. "They need volunteers now."
The giant garden is producing mostly leafy greens this early in the season. In summer will come onions, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, beets and carrots, says Sticklen. Newly planted orchards will bear apples, pears and citrus by next year. Cut flowers, culinary herbs and an apiary are also coming soon.
"It's awesome, a great step in the right direction," says Theo White, a coach and mentor at SOU’s University Coaching and Academic Mentoring program. He uses collards in his smoothies and eats them with ham, he says. (Correction: White's position at the university has been corrected.)
"We want to make good food at highly affordable prices, accessible to students," says student Sam Pennington-Vrsek, as she packs community-supported agriculture boxes for subscribers. The CSA boxes are delivered weekly to offices of faculty and staff. A full share for 20 weeks is $675; a half share is $400.
"SOU students, in particular, have a high rate of food insecurity and homelessness, and we want to provide fresh, sustainably harvested food, grown with love."
The garden is the crown jewel of the new SOU Center for Sustainability. It's paid for out of the Green Fund, which gets its money from student fees. The students specifically voted to use the money to create the center and the garden, says Sticklen.
As a Learning Living Laboratory, it's set up to be useful as an interdisciplinary resource, employed by students in just about any major, she adds.
"Sustainability affects every major, so there's a lot of opportunity here," says Sticklen. "For instance, business majors can look at it from the standpoint of business development."
A bare patch of ground at the beginning of the year, the Sustainability Center is "moving fast," she adds, with an 8-foot deer fence and greenhouse erected in recent weeks.
"It's a fantastic spread, a great way to provide fresh produce — and it's nice not to have to leave the campus," says Ryan Lamanna, an employee of the SOU Enrollment Services Center. "You know it's fresh and local here, not dried out like at some local markets."
Biology senior Jessica Harper, working at the farm stand, says, "I'm on the farm, on the ground, in the dirt and am also interested in the marketing and selling. It's a great place to learn and do research."
The garden helps get across the vital idea that food doesn't come from stores, but from nature — and anyone can make it happen, says Sticklen.
"So few people engage in the big picture of what they eat," she says. "Not everyone can be a farmer, but everyone eats, so everyone should at least know a farmer."
The Farm Stand is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays in the Stevenson Union courtyard. Anyone may attend the garden work parties, held from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays and 2 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. Ask questions at Sustainability@SOU.edu.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.