Growing Skills

CAFNR students learn to grow produce at Bradford Research Center

Dakota Beveridge, a senior majoring in sustainable agriculture, pedals broccoli across Lowry Mall in May.

The last few weeks of a semester are often a scramble for students, revising and presenting semester projects and papers, studying for exams and searching for internship and job opportunities. In addition to managing their academic responsibilities and considering career choices, several CAFNR students spent those weeks cultivating, harvesting and delivering fresh vegetables to MU’s campus.

They’re members of Tigers for Community Agriculture (TCA), a student project that partners with Bradford Research Center to grow produce for campus food providers.

A passion for growing vegetables and a yearning for hands-on experience led senior sustainable agriculture major, Dakota Beveridge, to get involved. She said anyone can get their hands in the soil with TCA; there’s no amount of experience required to participate. “A lot of people are interested but are intimidated because they’ve never grown food before,” Beveridge continued. “We’re learning by making mistakes and figuring out what works.”

“It’s food raised by students for students,” said Tim Reinbott, Bradford superintendent, of the first sale of 42 pounds of romaine lettuce to Campus Dining Services in mid-April. In a sense, it’s also food that’s fed by students, as the vegetables are grown with Bradford compost (Mizzou Doo) made from mixing students’ dining hall scraps and horse bedding from South Farm. It’s an integral step in Bradford’s Zero Carbon Footprint Vegetable and Compost Production System.

“They’re learning what and how to market and have talked to Eric Cartwright, executive chef for Campus Dining Services, to help inform what and when they grow. They’re also learning the challenges of weed control and coordinating transportation to and from the research center to campus,” Reinbott said.

The group consults with Reinbott, David Trinklein, associate professor of horticulture in CAFNR’s Plant Sciences Division and Mary Hendrickson, extension associate professor of rural sociology in CAFNR. Reinbott said his approach is to be hands-off and to let them make mistakes, a lesson he learned from his father when he got to manage a small, flood-prone plot of soybeans at age 12.

Tim Reinbott, (center) superintendent at Bradford Research Center and TCA student volunteers (from left to right) Monica Everett, Adam Caster and Katherine Seal

A Group Effort

Several students have sown seeds, watered and weeded the vegetables, but a core group of four sustainable agriculture majors have led the volunteer workforce: Katherine Seal, a sophomore from St. Louis; Monica Everett, a senior from Kansas City; Dakota Beveridge, a senior from Kansas City; and Henry Hellmuth, a sophomore from St. Louis. Hellmuth will manage the group’s plot and hoop houses over the summer, assist with tomato variety research as well as help grow tomatoes for Bradford’s popular tomato festival in September.

“I’ve learned a lot of practical skills, from how to work the soil, proper plant spacing, and group dynamics,” said Monica Everett, who will graduate in December 2012. “Learning how to market our crops and about post-harvest handling were also great lessons that few of us had experience in. We need more of these opportunities and the expertise on campus to help students learn the dynamic skills and knowledge necessary for farming—especially at a major land-grant university in the heart of the Midwest,” Everett added.

On a warm May morning, Beveridge delivered the group’s first broccoli harvest to the University Club, where Executive Sous Chef, Ryan Arnold, was delighted to see it. “That looks fantastic he said as he picked up a head of broccoli. We’ll put it on the menu tomorrow.”

Arnold is also in charge of purchasing for University Club and Catering. “I go through 120-140 pounds of lettuce in a week. To be able to buy it fresh and feature it in the club supports them and supports us,” he said. “I’ll buy everything they have all the time; the chefs are excited to work with their produce and the servers are proud to explain its origin to our members. I hope I can do as much for them that they’re doing for us; we really excited about the partnership.”

Twenty pounds of freshly harvested broccoli picked by volunteers of Tigers for Community Supported Agriculture.

He offers advice about what the club will be interested in and when, so TCA can use that information to inform what they grow in the future. He wants to help the students maximize their dollar/square feet ratio.

Arnold trained at a three-star, Michelin-rated restaurant in Paris, and then worked in restaurants in New York for nine years. He said he missed the variety of fresh ingredients he had in those locales, so he’s been seeking out partnerships with local growers in Missouri.

It can’t get much closer than Bradford Research Center, just a few miles east of MU’s campus.

Putting Down Roots

In the long-term, the group aims to become economically viable through vegetable sales to campus and wants to attract more volunteers. Part of their mission is to educate students about growing food.

Ryan Arnold, executive sous chef for University Club and Catering, shares the MCL Fresh List, which includes more than 400 vegetables grown in California, with Beveridge. Arnold said the document can help TCA understand the vegetable market and get exposed to new crops.

Tigers for Community Agriculture became a project of Sustain Mizzou in 2012. Sustain Mizzou is a non-partisan 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization run by student volunteers at MU to promote a sustainable way of life at the MU through education, cooperation, and local action regarding the environment.

“I’m impressed with their initiative” Hendrickson said. “Historically in land-grant institutions a great emphasis was on training students who had come off the farm. The last several years fewer students have that experience and more enter off-farm jobs in the agricultural industry. These students have created an opportunity to get their hands in the soil and learn by doing,” she added.