There will be twice as much local produce on the table this year for the Southern Oregon University community grown by its own Center for Sustainability, which expects to nearly double its level of food production thanks to a major donation of seeds from the Territorial Seed Company.

The $3,000 gift is expected to generate about $30,000 worth of food this year. The contribution stems from the support of Tom Johns, president of the Cottage Grove-based seed company, and his wife, Julie. Both are SOU alumni who say they feel a kinship for Ashland. 

Tom and Julie Johns attended a Farm to Fork event at the CFS site last June where they heard about and expressed interest in the center’s plans to grow.

“We donated because we saw a need. This is a great way for students to learn about growing their own food, and for those interested in being small farmers and market growers,” said Tom Johns. 

Johns sees the donation as a starting point in developing a long-term relationship with CFS. One idea that Territorial is considering is teaching CFS students about the seed industry while using their critical eyes for testing and experimenting with non-market seed production at the Ashland CFS farm. 

Thanks to the donation, the farm will yield between one and one-and-a-half acres of annual crop cultivation and at least half an acre of perennial food production, according to CFS Farm Manager and SOU biology major Jessica Harper. Harper helped choose the types of Territorial seeds based on feedback from student surveys and SOU dining hall managers.

CFS operates a campus-owned farm and outdoor classroom on a 3.5-acre plot just across from Ashland Middle School on Walker Avenue. Student employees and community volunteers gather there to grow organic food for the SOU community. 

Fruits and vegetables they harvest are distributed in different ways to generate income for CFS, including a monthly Community Supported Agriculture subscription program for faculty, supplying SOU dining facilities through a collaboration with the company A’viands, and a weekly low-cost campus farm stand for students. 

The Territorial Seed donation, along with other donor and volunteer support, helps CFS keep food costs low while also cultivating the physical space necessary for expanding education and business programming.

Although only in its second year of operation after opening in the fall of 2014, CFS is evolving into a hub of collaboration extending beyond the SOU campus.

“One of CFS’s goals is to become a living and learning laboratory, harboring a place in the community where people can gather and learn and research,” said Harper, the student farm manager. 

This spring CFS will partner with Rogue Valley Farm to School to bring students from the Ashland and Medford school districts to CFS’s outdoor classroom, where students will participate in harvesting, cooking and various seasonal activities.

Rogue Valley Farm to School is a nonprofit organization working with local school districts to educate students about local food sourcing. CFS will serve as one of four farm sites for Rogue Valley’s Farm to School Harvest Meal field trips. 

“It’s an ideal partnership for us,” said Rogue Valley Farm to School program director Melina Barker, explaining that the farm’s Walker Avenue location allows the organization to coordinate more field trips since Ashland schools will not have to travel out of town.

At least one SOU student employee or intern will be present at every Harvest Meal field trip for environmental education training, though Barker encourages more volunteers to tag along. 

CFS is also working with the Oregon State University Extension Service to conduct research about possible techniques for growing grapes organically in the region. The farm is beginning this week to install a quarter-acre, donor-funded vineyard that will be used to test growing methods while also producing grapes for distribution. Results may prove useful to the burgeoning vineyard and wine industry in the Rogue Valley.

Cultivating sustainable business through environmental research is a large part of what the CFS does, explained SOU Professor and CFS Faculty Director Vincent Smith.

“Many of the environmental problems we face today will be solved through business and enterprise in some fashion, ” Smith said.

CFS aims to generate solutions by offering a resource-rich space for students to pursue research in areas of sustainable technologies and business strategies. For example, one SOU student has worked with a corporation in California to develop and test agricultural solar panels. Another student is currently developing electric tractor technologies with the Oregon Institute of Technology, and another student is looking for funds to develop an aquaponics facility on campus

And a group of Ashland High School students has been frequenting the CFS site to work on projects and develop their own ideas. 

This model is intended to provide students with research opportunities and on-site experience while helping sustainable businesses grow.

Passersby could easily mistake the CFS for a community garden. It is more than that. Smith identifies it as an endeavor in civic agriculture, where student farmers provide diverse food resources to the specificities of the local community. 

The work at CFS is developed and driven by students with varying majors and backgrounds offering the center multidisciplinary insight. Both Harper and Smith credit much of CFS’s growth to the hard work of students and the support of volunteers and donors. 

The public is invited to attend work parties from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays at the farm at 155 Walker Ave. in Ashland. For more information, email sustainability@sou.edu.

Southern Oregon University student Angelica Crimmins is an intern for the Ashland Daily Tidings.