Appetite for organics
Hungry for more sustainable ventures, Chico State grows an educational garden
Katie Fugnetti downplays the significance of her work turning a bare patch of ground at Chico State’s University Farm into a healthy organic garden, but the towering tomato plants and flowers belie her modesty.
All summer she’s been tending to nearly an acre of certified-organic land planted with an array of row crops: melons, cucumbers, peppers, and, of course, several rows of those 6-foot, hearty-looking vines producing gorgeous, colorful varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
When students returned to classes a few weeks ago, Fugnetti, a research assistant and manager of what is known as the organic vegetable project, began harvesting in earnest the bounty from months of planting, pruning, weeding and watering. One of her biggest questions upon doing so is what exactly she’s going to do with it all.
In the spring, the Associated Students Dining Services, the campus’ food vendor, bought lettuce during the garden’s first official harvest. Now that summer harvest has arrived, Fugnetti is hoping the student-owned corporation will purchase more produce.
“Eventually, we want to create that sustainable cycle at the university,” she said, noting Chico State’s commitment to its environmental initiative. In the meantime, Chico Natural Foods has supported the garden, purchasing tomatoes and melons.
Fugnetti has high hopes for the project and ultimately would like to see the university’s main eatery, the Marketplace Café, outfitted with a special station where customers could order meals prepared from the fruits and veggies or purchase produce for at-home use.
At this point, though, the fledgling, long-term project is primarily intended for research and education.
Over the course of the summer, Fugnetti has documented many aspects of her work, including the growth of plants and their yields. She’s also tested organic insecticides in some areas, especially on the tomatoes to combat worms. With most of the cantaloupe coming ripe simultaneously, one lesson learned is to better stagger next year’s plantings.
Students and professors are also invited to conduct research, with the goal of reaching out to the community.
“We want to be a model of organic farming—a place for people to come and learn,” she said. “We really want to build a bridge with local farmers and share knowledge.”
Chico State professor Lee Altier, the director of the project, echoed Fugnetti, adding that the garden isn’t intended as competition for local organic growers. In fact, community members are encouraged to visit the garden and learn from the project.
One opportunity for an in-depth look will occur during the annual Chico Organic Farming and Food Conference, which dovetails with the university’s annual This Way to Sustainability conference in November. In addition to a tour of the project and adjacent organic dairy, the event will feature speakers from the California Certified Organic Farmers.
“Increasingly, what we’re trying to do … is make the farm a model for good practices,” said Altier, who teaches several classes that incorporate environmental themes, including his popular “Food Forever” class.
Altier called the project a student initiative, noting that Danielle Baker, now a Chico State graduate, came up with the idea about a year ago. A $20,000 grant from the Earl Foor Foundation helped it to put down real roots.
During a recent tour of the garden, vibrant flowers teemed with humming birds, bees, butterflies, dragonflies and other creatures that help with pollination and pest control. Fugnetti said the plan is to slowly plant additional hedgerows designed to provide habitat that’s crucial to organic gardening. Over time, they’ll expand the garden on the 10-acre parcel allotted for the project.
For now, though, Fugnetti has her hands full, and she is looking for help with the intensive labor out at the farm. Harvest duties are the main priority these days, but maintenance and getting in fall’s crops of lettuce and carrots are in the works. Volunteers with little or no experience with organic crops shouldn’t be intimidated by the prospect of lending a hand.
Fugnetti, who earned her degree in nutrition, admits the learning curve at the garden has been steeper for her than it might have been for an agricultural major, but that certainly isn’t evident from row upon row of crops, such as pumpkins and butternut squash.
After graduating from Chico State about three years ago, Fugnetti joined an international organization called WWOOF (WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and spent eight months working and living on farms in Italy. She also worked for Little Red Hen Nursery and Chico-based California Organic Flowers, the latter of which she credits for inspiring a rainbow-filled row of zinnias.
The experiences have proven invaluable for her efforts locally.
“This represents a whole new experiment—a chance to see what I could do with what I learned,” she said.
Students, faculty, staff and community members are welcome at the garden, and Fugnetti said they won’t go home empty handed. In addition to going home with some delicious, organic, locally grown food, they’ll get experiential knowledge.
“Why not come out to where the food grows?” she asked. “It’s a holistic, hands-on outdoor classroom.”