Bell peppers in various degrees of green to red, buckets of beets, elephant garlic sold by the mega-size clove and dozens more campus-grown edibles, herbs and flowers filled the fall semester’s first StanFresh market, a student-run ag enterprise happening today and returning to the Quad Nov. 16.
On Tuesday, another produce sale had its first distribution. Students picked and packed the first baskets of subscriber produce for the Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) project.
Year-round, Chartwells, which runs Stan State’s dining services, buys campus-grown vegetables, herbs and citrus. Excess produce ripening over the summer is given away to area food banks.
Business is booming at the Stan State micro-farm, helping support an endeavor in which edibles are only the first course. The garden is also fertile ground for science experiments, economics lessons and field experience.
As patrons loaded up on tomatoes, cucumbers and three sizes of bright purple eggplant, a novice crew at the cash register learned to put entries in correct categories as a nagging buzzer called out their missteps.
Such practical lessons in the minutia that pose real-life headaches and hardships offer a tangible curriculum for future farmers and entrepreneurs, said Rebekah Shrader, who teaches the agriculture economics class running the market. Classes taught by Ayuba Seidu supply the colorful inventory, the produce supply side. Both are assistant professors of economics.
Students picked, packed and hauled their wares, procured cool storage for early inventory, arranged the sales displays and hawked their wares. Pricing the goods took checking supermarket prices, last year’s records, the USDA market report and assessing supplies for scarce items and those that might not sell, Shrader said.
The kale was a surprise hit, selling out long before the stack of helpful kale recipes was gone. Bunches of chubby turnips, however, still peered over the top of their basket as closing time approached. Such supply-demand mismatches had lessons to teach.
This week, the University’s sustainable agriculture class harvested their first crop of luxuriant greens to fill subscriber baskets. Eggplants, baby bok choy, radishes, late season tomatoes, jalapenos, garlic, beets and bell peppers went in, as well as a bouquet of basil, oregano, rosemary and tiny Thai peppers.
Recipes folded into the basket mix, offering novel ways to serve fresh beets, mustard greens and kohlrabi — less familiar fall staples, said Assistant Professor of Plant Science Costanza Zavalloni, who teaches the sustainable agriculture class.
“Every time the basket mix will be different,” she said, smiling as she surveyed the garden where students plucked, picked and conferred. Teams of five students tend each raised bed and share the tasks of planning, planting and picking. “They learn from each other,” Zavalloni said.
Students harvesting outer leaves from expansive heads of kale, mustard and rainbow chard in one bed let sunlight flood a middle row of leggy seedlings intended for a future harvest. “The main focus is growing sustainably,” said agriculture student Joseph Devencenzi, who said his experience is mainly in farm operations. “It’s a lot different in this small scale,” he said.
Beside him, Angelique Costa pried leaves off a richly veined kale plant. Costa said she has worked in garden production before and maintains a vegetable garden at home. But for Tyler Gomes, the class has been entirely new. “I’ve never actually thought about growing vegetables before. I didn’t know anything about it,” he said.
The student crews packed the first baskets for 12 subscribing produce buyers. Every two weeks through the semester they will repeat the effort. Spring classes will serve fresh subscriptions. Bridging the semesters is the job of Martin Hildebrandt, sustainable ag lab technician, who manages the flow of Stan State’s nearly 3 acres of producing beds and orchards.
“Agriculture is different from a typical industry,” said Professor Oluwarotimi Odeh. Odeh oversees the Stan State agriculture program, which offers an interdisciplinary mix of concentrations alongside nuts-and-bolts practice. “We make the best use of this little garden to provide ag and ag-economic skills,” he said.
“Even if you go into a big farm operation, this experience makes them better managers with a better understanding of what they are managing,” he said. “Having that well-rounded background is valuable.”