Students run organic vegetable project at University Farm

CHICO — Just outside of Chico, a plot of land has been transformed into an educational resource for the community and a lesson in innovation for agriculture students.

On three acres located at the University Farm, rows of cucumbers weigh down their trellises, shading carefully hidden lettuce plants, beside round tomatoes hanging amongst basil plants.

Bindweed springs up from rich soil, waiting for its head to be chopped off with a hoe or pulled out by hand and pests that could be efficiently killed by chemicals are carefully eradicated with natural oils instead.

It’s the organic vegetable project.

When Tina Candelo-Mize, a horticulture transfer student from San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, was touring Chico State, she first visited the University Farm. When the tour took Candelo-Mize to the organic project, she knew she wanted to attend Chico State so that she could work there.

The project was started five years ago and is a grant-funded, student-run project dedicated to providing education and fresh organic produce to the community.

But it is also a chance for agriculture students at Chico State to experiment with organic gardening techniques, research innovative gardening and marketing strategies and get hands-on experience in management, organization and working on the land.

Students can get involved through volunteering and through a “directed field class,” that includes an hour of discussion and two hours a week working at the garden.

For Candelo-Mize, enrolling in the directed field class quickly became a job as assistant field manager. In January, she became the field manager.

The program offers workshops and volunteer opportunities to show students how to grow their own food at a small-scale accessible level in a sustainable environment.

For the handful of student employees, the position is an opportunity to learn and advance their own skills while sharing their passion with others.

“It reiterates what I’m learning in the classroom and then I get to share it with other people in a way that they can understand,” Candelo-Mize said. “And all that while, I’m getting paid and getting to support myself in school — it’s huge.”

Candelo-Mize isn’t a typical student, she said. She is 30, married and has two sons, 5 and 2 years old.

Starting pay was $9.50 an hour, and in her current position as field manager, she makes $12. During the school year, she works 15 to 20 hours a week, over summer, 30 hours.

“As an ag major, getting a job at the University Farm is pretty much what we all want,” she said.

The position is ideal for students because wages are competitive, you can choose your own hours based around your class schedule and the managers are professors, so they understand students’ work loads and encourage making school a priority, she said.

As field manager, Candelo-Mize has the opportunity to organize and plan, developing a variety of skills she thinks will be paramount to accomplish her future goals of becoming a certified crop adviser and someday teaching at a university level.

Production planning, people management, problem solving and critical thinking are all part of her job, she said.

“Often organic farming is the test subject and the stuff that hasn’t really been done before,” she said. “You’re having to really think outside the box.”

The workshops the project offers give Candelo-Mize a chance to reach out to the community and exchange knowledge with local farmers.

Managing an organic farm is vastly different from the challenges of a non-organic commercial farm, she said.

Processes are more time-consuming and more expensive on an organic farm than on a conventional farm, and the employees are constantly researching and working to develop new strategies for weed reduction and integrated pest management. Spraying crops with natural certified organic pesticides is a last resort.

“That’s why I really like organic farming; you have to get creative,” Candelo-Mize said.

She researches crops that are compatible and mutually beneficial to grow side-by-side, planting basil between the tomato plants, because basil grows much faster than tomato plants and shades out the weeds, but is not large enough to compete with the tomato plants. Lettuce is planted in the shade of the cucumber plants to prevent it from getting bitter in the heat of summer.

Part of the experimenting process includes learning from mistakes. After researching a method known at the “three sisters garden,” Candelo-Mize planted corn, squash and beans together. Purportedly, the corn would provide structure for the beans and the squash leaves would shade out the weeds. Instead, the beans brought spider mites, a pest, to the squash, and the corn was spaced too far apart to pollinate successfully, so many of the kernels did not develop and the yield was not marketable.

In addition, the  squash variety sold in the package deal didn’t have big-enough leaves to shade out the weeds.

“I didn’t like it, but that’s how you learn,” she said. “Part of our grant and the whole mission is to provide information, so the more experimenting we do, the more we can show the public. Because we are education-based, we don’t have to worry so much about our overhead, so we can afford to do these experiments.”

The project is supported by Cultivating Community, a project supported by a 2011 California Department of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Grant, and awarded to the CSUC Research Foundation under the directorship of agriculture professor Lee Altier.

Candelo-Mize has aspirations to turn the grant-funded project into a self-sufficient enterprise.

The garden was originally started on one acre of University Farm property, but a recent contract to provide Craig Hall dining services with winter squash, cabbage and melons led to an expansion to two more acres.

The program is also negotiating with the Chico State Associated Students dining services.

These new contracts would provide a more direct way to get fresh produce to students. Currently, the project holds a weekly Wednesday market on campus, which attracts faculty and staff and generates publicity for the farm; however, few students actually take advantage of purchasing the produce.

“The ultimate goal is to get as much of our food into the bellies of students — as many students as possible,” Candelo-Mize said. “Students don’t really want to go to the market and then carry around food in their backpacks, and I don’t blame them.”

Getting produce into the student dining halls is mutually beneficial because it is a way for the farm to move produce and a more effective way to get healthy food to students, she said.

Because the project is grant-funded, it does not have the financial pressure that other farmers have. This makes it possible to sell the produce at a lower cost. However, they do not pursue selling their produce at farmers markets because they do not want to compete with other local farmers, said market manager Kyle Riddle.

“For them, it’s their livelihood; for us, it’s our education,” Riddle said.

The fact that the project is completely student-run is both it’s greatest attribute and biggest challenge, Candelo-Mize said.

Unlike many other units on the University Farm, there are no paid staff there year-round, so students must juggle their classes and homework with managing the farm, she said.

Students who are interested in learning more can contact the organic vegetable project at [email protected] or find them at the Student Services Plaza 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays, or at the farmers market in Chapmantown 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

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