Cooped between stretches of plains and a high tunnel, a “secret” garden unfolds through a hobbit door.
Early in the morning, student farmers arrive at the garden and unclothe the crops that they had wrapped in a protective covering the previous evening. As sunrays drown the enclosure, eyes adjust to the symmetry of the rows of plants that run around the garden leading to the cypress tree in the middle.
“It’s the best kept secret of Ohio University,” Theresa Moran, the director of the food studies theme, said about the gardens.
Jefferson Market on East Green is embellished with an assortment of nutritious produce, ranging from freshly picked strawberries to bunches of leafy spinach that cascade over the store’s mantels. Not many know, however, that it’s being sourced from the university’s literal backyard, the Plant Biology Learning Gardens on West State Street behind the OU Innovation Center.
The produce is farmed there by student farmers under the direction of Arthur Trese, an associate professor of environmental and plant biology. The yield is then harvested by the students and is transported every Tuesday to Jefferson Market. Additionally, the students sell the produce at the Atrium Cafe at Grover Center every Wednesday and at the gardens every Friday.
The department of plant biology started the Plant Biology Learning Gardens and introduced student farming as part of the university offerings in 2014. Moran and her team have watered and fed the endeavor over the years, with plans to soon develop it into a full-fledged business to support the gardens.
The introduction of student farming, Moran said, was consequential because the students were already learning about how to grow food within the food studies theme. The manual labor of farming simply gives students an opportunity to practice the acquired knowledge. Emphasis is put on the production of vegetables, which are much easier to cultivate and are the garden’s main source of income.
“Being interested in food in general and produce, it was an opportunity to do hands-on work that really can’t be accessed in a classroom,” Sam Fjelstul, a senior studying specialized studies with a concentration in plant biology, said.
Students are involved in the entire process of agriculture that ranges from tilling and harvesting to selling the produce. Most days, they are required to pull out weeds, till the land and sow the seeds. On the day of the sale, students come in early to reap the crops and wash them. The cleansed produce is then separated into buckets and cardboard boxes, and marked before they are loaded onto a truck and shipped to the various locations.
The fruits and vegetables produced at the gardens are seasonal. The prices vary at the different locations. For instance, at the Atrium Cafe and the gardens some of the herbs such as parsley and cilantro is $1 per bunch, and vegetables such as beets are $2 a pound.
The farming techniques practiced at the gardens are overwhelmingly organic, but the bulk of paperwork and finance related to the endeavor has prolonged the certification process. Jordan Francisco, a senior studying environmental and plant biology, emphasized that the students refrain from using synthetic materials in the production process. Instead, they rely on natural toxins to prevent pests to yield a prolific harvest.
The narrative of local production and consumption is being increasingly embraced by the student population. Kelsey Bryant, a graduate student studying environmental and plant biology, said students are keen to know where their food is coming from, and discovering fellow student farmers can inspire many to buy locally.