What once started as a small garden, the Ohio University Student Farm, 338 W. State St., has blossomed into a giving tree for both students and the community.
Forty years ago, James Cavender, professor emeritus in plant biology, started building the space as a learning garden for OU students. Initially, the Learning Garden, known as the Circle Garden, was intended for plant biology students particularly interested in growing their own personal garden.
Art Trese, associate professor emeritus of sustainable agriculture and previous OU Student Farm coordinator, said the main appeal of the Circle Garden is the hands-on experience students can get from working there.
“I use the term often: it’s a ‘human scale,’” Trese said. “It’s meant to mean that a lot of it is done by hand. The biggest piece of equipment we have is this rototiller. And the rest of it — the weeding and the planting and harvesting, packaging — is all done by people with two hands.”
Roughly 30 years after the learning garden was built, Trese began thinking of expanding the garden for more student learning opportunities.
“I started thinking about funding a more stable use of the space for student learning in particular,” Trese said. “We wanted to have a program where students could be interns on a farm — our farm or other farms. So, we started developing it as a small business. We could generate the funds to support the assignments and the farm.”
The process of expansion began by giving birth to new arrangements like the OU high tunnel and annex.
The development of the high tunnel was a particularly big addition to the farm. Theresa Moran, adjunct associate professor of plant biology, applied for a grant to build the high tunnel for the food studies program.
In light of the high tunnels’ capability to trap solar radiation and warm plants, that addition has allowed the farm to grow vegetables, such as lettuce, broccoli, onions, cauliflower and other crops during the cooler seasons. The high tunnel is also used to grow crops in the warmer seasons, such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and cucumbers.
Fenced in with barbed wire on the other side of the farm lies the annex. The annex, like the high tunnel, was also built for a specific intention. The annex is used to grow perennial crops including produce such as raspberries, blueberries and apples.
Alongside expanding the farm and learning opportunities, the farm has been home to many research projects over the years.
David Rosenthal, associate professor of plant biology and current OU student farm coordinator, said one of the most recent research projects held at the farm involved testing spent grains.
“In the spring of 2020, we had an experiment going here where we grew spinach and kale with spent grains, brewers’ spent grains from Jackie O’s, to see and to test how using spent grains changed plant growth and response,” Rosenthal said. “We did a similar experiment last spring in 2021.”
Besides supporting student learning, one of the biggest assets to farm is the food they grow and sell.
The farm sells and donates to many different organizations around Athens. It often sells produce to OU’s Jefferson Marketplace. It also provides meals to Good Works, Inc., a local, nonprofit Christian organization and sells produce at the Chesterhill Produce Auction.
In addition, the farm sells and gives donations to Community Food Initiatives, a local nonprofit organization whose goal is to give individuals equitable access to healthy food.
“The really cool thing about that is the connections between the farm and OU and CFI because those potatoes were initially planted by students in the nutrition program who were doing community service hours, servicing learning through their class here,” Rosenthal said. “So, that’s the connection to helping the local food system and enhancing food security.”
As the farm continues to expand and promote its mission of supporting the local food network, it encourages all the help it can get tending to the crops.
Kat Tillis, a junior studying plant biology, is involved as a work study student.
“This is the perfect opportunity because it's a very circular economy,” Tillis said. “We are funded by the university. We grow food and sell it back to the university, and with that money, we pay for college interns. It’s a really easy way to get involved in local food but still have it be part of your college experience.”
Besides offering work studies to students, the farm also offers internships over the summer, and graduate and undergraduate students get stipends from the farm's profits.
Rosenthal encourages all students to get involved and reminds everyone of the farm's main goal: students’ education.
“That’s part of what we do. That’s our mission just to train (students),” Rosenthal said. “I think that’s the core mission of the farm: to turn those untrained (and) naive into farmers — or at least somebody who can grow a vegetable garden.”