Good things are growing

A student-run organic farm takes root at UNR

EnAcT nembers and community volunteers prepare the earth for UNR’s organic farm.

EnAcT nembers and community volunteers prepare the earth for UNR’s organic farm.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

It is a hot, cloudless, summer morning— typical for Nevada July. As I cut across the grape-growing area of the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station, I see a group of about a dozen people scattered about a large patch of dirt. This is Field 3A.

Mattie Melrose greets me and hands me a shovel. She leads me to a small trench, about 5 feet by 3 feet—the beginnings of one of the raised beds for an organic farm—and teaches me how to double-dig. Most of the people here are students, and they are energetically digging in the soil—which hasn’t been turned or irrigated in over five years. This is seriously hard work. And, it’s just the beginning.

These highly motivated students are building UNR’s first student-run organic farm. The idea for this project was germinated by Melrose, a student in the environmental studies program through the Academy for the Environment. It developed out of her concern for the environment and the problems that come from food production.

“I concluded that the best thing I could do for the environment was to get some food growing,” she says.

Melrose teamed up with Erin Hansen and Cristina Milner, both majoring in the environmental studies program, and the group started the undergraduate student club EnAcT—The Environmental Action Team—at the end of last semester. One of the club’s main goals is implementing this organic, community farm.

The surrounding community has come out in a big way to help the students realize this project. An acre of land has been donated by UNR’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources. EnAcT also joined with Leslie Allen, commercial horticulturist from the University’s Cooperative Extension. Allen helped the group plan the farm and offers her knowledge and expertise on gardening in the Nevada environment. The Master Gardener program donated seeds and seedlings to get the first planting season going. Tools, shovels, time and energy have also been donated to the project by various businesses and members of the community.

“Everybody wants to see this organic garden work,” says Milner, who is in charge of the compost pile that has been started in conjunction with the farm. The students are giving out buckets to anyone who is interested in adding their kitchen scraps to the compost pile. They have already received grass clippings from the university and are working on getting coffee grounds from the campus Starbucks. The compost pile eventually will be worked back into the soil and, if all goes well, will be ready to use next year.

Fruits of labor

A variety of edibles and some heirlooms have been planted, including tomatoes, corn, tomatillos, squash, herbs, kale, rhubarb, chard and herbs. The group would like to put some plants in later in the fall to overwinter, such as asparagus and garlic.

For this first year, EnAcT is only cultivating part of the acre that has been donated for its use. Still, the farm is sizeable. Ten raised beds measuring 20 feet by 5 feet and one large 20-by-20 foot bed are marked out to be dug, planted and irrigated this season. The rest of the land will be sown with a cover crop of cowpeas and other plants that will help prepare the soil for the next planting season. Another area has been selected for mushroom beds. Depending on the type of mushrooms being grown, these beds will consist of grass clippings and leaves or wood chips and sawdust and will yield mushrooms in 9 to 12 months.

The group has been working hard to get the plants into the raised beds, and now that most of them are in the ground, EnAcT is still counting on community involvement to keep up the farm. They are hoping for volunteers to help water and weed the farm periodically, among other things. Even though it’s late in the growing season, the students expect a good return. The tomatoes and squash are well on their way, and many short season crops have been planted. Either way, the groundwork has literally been done, and the beds will be ready for next year.

When the time comes to harvest the fruits of their labor, the student group plans to sell the produce downtown at the West Street Market. They also hope to sell some of the fresh vegetables to students on campus during a sustainability festival EnAcT is planning in late October.

The hope is that the farm will become a permanent fixture on the campus. Melrose would like a chunk of the garden to go to other groups, such as students from the dorms who are interested in growing their own food.

“I’d really like to see members of the community come out and have their own plots,” says Melrose.

EnAcT would conduct workshops and help the various groups with their garden plot, much like a neighborhood community garden. The group also has future ideas of making their organically grown goods available to students for consumption by supplying a portion of fresh produce to the campus food services.

When asked what she expects people who participate in the project will get out of it, Melrose responds, “I want them to get a sense of community and connection to their food. It’s hard to get a connection to our food when it comes from the grocery store and it’s wrapped in plastic. I want participants to gain respect for what it takes—the ecological community and social interaction, all the different pieces required to produce food.”

The Environmental Action Team meets regularly during the summer on top of their time on the farm. They can be found on Monday afternoons from 12:30-1:30 p.m. on the UNR quad near the Mackay Science building. The club plans to continue its activities over the fall and winter with guest speakers and maybe even some indoor gardening in the greenhouse. Melrose gets excited as she talks about the farm and possible future plans.

“It’s a great builder of community,” she says. “Food is a great thing to come together for.”