A Garden Grows At Upstate New York's Colgate University

The first seeds of an idea for a garden at Colgate were planted in February 2001, when Heather Schoen ’02 did an Environmental Studies project that described the successes of student-run gardens at 12 other colleges and universities, and outlined a plan to start a student organization called “Green Thumbs,” focused on promoting local, sustainable agriculture at Colgate. According to Schoen’s vision, the initial goal of Green Thumbs would be to educate both the Colgate and Hamilton, NY communities about sustainable agriculture, and to build a relationship between students and local farmers whereby students could learn about organic farming through volunteering. The ultimate goal of promoting local, sustainable food sources pointed to the establishment of Colgate’s own organic vegetable garden.

Green Thumbs came to life  as an official Colgate University student group in Fall ’08, when co-presidents Emily Sabo ’11 and Will Cushman ’11, together with faculty advisor, Sociology Professor Chris Henke, who teaches a popular course at Colgate on Food, began researching how to turn the garden into a reality. The information, contacts, and decisions they made were utilized in Fall ’09 by Meg Cronin, Teddi Hoffman, Kate Pavelich, and Maria Kryachko (all Class of ‘10) to develop a 44-page garden proposal for “Interdisciplinary Investigations in Environmental Issues,” a class co-taught by Colgate Sustainability Coordinator John Pumilio. This proposal detailed, among other things, the site options, layout, crops, intended uses of produce, publicity, budget, and management of the garden.

With the decision of the Colgate University Class of 2010 Senior Gift Committee to donate their entire gift to the Sustainability Council, and after much controversy, the Council agreed to give that money to the Green Thumbs garden, making a reality of Ms. Schoen’s idea.  With this financial backing, Green Thumbs was able to hire two student interns – Rob Jeffrey ‘12 and Stacey Marion ’11 – to get started on the garden this summer.

The garden’s ground-breaking took place this past summer on June 2nd. From that point on, the layout and planting of the garden has been in the capable hands of Rob Jeffrey and Stacey Marion.  Jeffrey, an active member of Green Thumbs, and Marion, an outdoors-lover with an interest in agriculture and experience in farm work, have been excited about the project since the day they signed on.  They both enjoy the amount of freedom they have when it comes to making decisions about the garden.  As Marion says, although “[M]uch research had been done on the feasibility of the garden by the Green Thumbs, the farming decisions of the garden were left to us.”  While the garden is fully student-run, Green Thumbs put together an advisory committee and hired a consultant so that Marion and Jeffrey would have some guidance in the process of building a garden from the ground up.  Selected by Jeffrey and Marion, consultant Stacey Nagle is an avid gardener in Cazenovia, NY and helps at the Colgate garden 10-12 hours a week.  The advisory committee, composed of Green Thumbs’ president, interns, Colgate faculty and staff, and local farmers, was involved in decisions regarding layout, fencing, tool shed, and irrigation, but Jeffrey and Marion were responsible for bringing options to the table.

The first vegetables to go in the ground were squash, cucumbers, broccoli, eggplant, peppers, and a couple rows of tomatoes.  Next came the hot peppers, carrots, corn, radishes, and chives.  These plants were either purchased or generously donated by local Community Supported Agricultures (CSAs), including Common Thread.  Local CSAs and farms have also helped by providing advice on issues such as irrigation and fencing.  As Jeffrey and Marion say in the Colgate Garden Blog (http://colgategarden.blogspot.com/), “We have received great support from the local agricultural community, and are forming friendships with many local farmers.”  This community-building aspect of the garden is exciting, especially because it is exactly what was envisioned by Heather Schoen, the original founder of Green Thumbs.

Thanks to the hard work and organization of Jeffrey and Marion, the half acre plot of ground on College St., just a stone’s throw from Colgate’s Andy Kerr football stadium, has been transformed from a grassy field to a fertile garden.  So far, Jeffrey and Marion have been selling the garden’s produce to Sodexo, Inc. (the provider of Colgate’s dining services) through Purdy and Sons, the company in charge of Sodexo’s local purchases.  According to Sodexo, it cannot use produce from the garden in Colgate’s main dining facility, Frank Dining Hall, because the amount of harvested produce would not be enough to make a whole dish and it would not be able to “advertise” the dish as being “from the Colgate Community Garden.”  Instead, Sodexo will use the garden’s bounty for  “local” meals in The Coop and The Edge (smaller, alternate dining locations at Colgate), and for catered events, such as dinners with Lyle Roelofs (provost and dean of faculty), and with Colgate’s president, Jeffrey Herbst. The garden will also have a stand where they will sell vegetables directly to students, targeting those students who live in off-campus housing where they can cook their own meals.  The garden will be maintained during the school year by volunteers, who will also get shares of the produce.

On its website, Sodexo, Inc. describes itself as “a recognized leader in global sustainability” and has adopted “The Better Tomorrow Plan,” which lists 14 “commitments” including its #5, “We will source local, seasonal or sustainably grown and raised products.”  This commitment provides further as follows:  “Agriculture demands significant environmental inputs and has serious impacts on the environment, consuming a large percentage of the world’s water, producing a large share of greenhouse gas emissions, and employing a large share of the earths population.  Food is a critical component of our business and a starting point for where we add value for many of our clients.  It’s a visible and tangible expression of our values and represents the largest portion of our environmental and social impact.  Sourcing from more sustainable sources helps ensure our ability to produce affordable, healthy and abundant food well into the future [emphasis added].

It is the hope of many Colgate people that the garden will continue to grow until, one day, it can be used regularly in Frank Dining Hall, Colgate’s main dining facility, and Sodexo will honor its commitment to local, sustainable foods in the clearest way possible: using food grown organically in Colgate’s own garden as a significant source of the food served in the main dining hall (Kiera Crowley, Colgate ’13).

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