November 3, 2008 — An interesting, informal research project has cropped up at the University of Virginia's Hereford Residential College. Students and faculty are literally getting their hands dirty together, building an urban mini-farm.
Two years ago, Keith Williams, assistant professor of physics, was considering moving to Hereford to become a faculty resident, but was hesitant to move to a place with no gardening space. He proposed the idea of building a garden to Nancy Takahashi, Hereford's principal. In Williams' proposal, Takahashi saw an opportunity for student learning and growth.
The pair decided on some basic principles for the garden, that it be as organic as possible — not using pesticides and building up soil quality over time, and that it involve students. At Takahashi's request, facilities management tilled up a large space near the Malone building for the project and the gardening began.
The garden has since doubled in size and continues to expand. Williams and Takahashi co-taught "Local Foods: From Garden to Table," a short course at Hereford. In the course, they explored the latest trends in alternative food production and enlisted the help of students to tend the mini-farm. This included harvesting its yields for use at faculty/student dinners and at Runk Dining Hall. In addition, more informal gatherings have been organized around harvest time, including pesto and salsa-making nights.
On a practical level, students and faculty are trying to figure out the best way to produce high crop yields from a small area without overtaxing the soil. They are experimenting with different strategies such as multiculture, interplanting, trap cropping and cover cropping, as well as other organic solutions to pest problems.
They have had successes and failures, and they've been learning along the way. Coffee grounds have proven to be very effective in deterring hungry bunnies from the salad greens and a tea made from petunia leaves helped control aphids that were threatening the tomatoes earlier this year.
Perhaps less immediately tangible, but even more important, is the question of whether the mini-farm will promote good faculty/student rapport.
"The project opens up a channel of communication that I've found that the students are really interested in. They really like the idea of being able to interact with faculty on a non-academic level," Williams said.
"Communal gardening is a good exercise in working effectively with others," said Dan Michaelson, a third-year double major in engineering and environmental science. Michaelson, who has maintained a large garden for himself and his family in Northern Virginia, is one of a handful of students involved in the project.
"Having a garden gives my life meaning purely and simply," he said. "Nothing except maybe music has come close to giving me so much faith and joy in life as the relationship that comes with growing food for myself and others."
Students at Brown Residential College have already expressed interest in emulating the Hereford mini-farm. Williams said he hopes that the success at Hereford will continue to build student enthusiasm and spawn similar projects around Grounds, and he thinks that Thomas Jefferson would approve.
"While we might now consider projects like this to be nontraditional, they are in fact very much in keeping with the original intention of Mr. Jefferson's university," he said.