Students Learn About Sustainable Farming in Horticulture Program

Students Learn About Sustainable Farming in Horticulture Program

12 May 14


Story by Steve Lathrop, Albany Democrat-Herald business reporter
Photo by David Patton, Democrat-Herald photographer

May 11, 2014

By the time it reaches the kitchens of Todd Ketterman’s culinary arts program, the food delivered by Linn-Benton Community College horticulture students has completed an impressive on-campus journey.

Ketterman’s students put the finishing touches on the produce just before it is put to good use in salad bars and in dishes prepared as part of LBCC’s food service.

Everybody wins thanks to a sustainability program that Stefan Seiter got off the ground, or perhaps more appropriately, got into the ground, 11 years ago.

“We began moving toward sustainability in all of our classes,” said Seiter, who heads the horticulture department. “We work pretty closely with culinary arts. Anything we produce they try to integrate into their menus.”

Seiter’s program is mostly about organic farming and gardening. In the last two years a new class directly involved with production deals specifically with sustainable agriculture and food systems.

That class is always at capacity, according to Seiter. In fact, most of the classes are full and Seiter is looking to add more. The latest will be a one-year certificate class, Profitable Small Farms, which will begin in the fall.

What perhaps is most appealing for students is the hands-on opportunity it provides. Students get the full effect of what it takes to get products to market thanks to LBCC’s own organic farm.

Seiter was able to secure a one-acre spot west of campus that is both a learning experience and a practical experience. There are a greenhouse and bins full of compost and fertilizer. Students plant and care for a variety of mostly vegetable crops.

Some fertilizer comes from the LBCC horse barns for basic building block material. Some compost comes from the city of Albany, which also provides leaves for mulch.

It’s a down and dirty kind of approach that takes those involved through the entire process on a microlevel.

Chad Hollingsworth eventually plans to get a degree in agricultural science from Oregon State. He’s dual enrolled at OSU and LBCC and came into the program with quite a bit of experience in farming.

“I know a lot of this,” said Hollingsworth, 20, a second-year student out of Portland. “I grew up on Sauvie Island and worked on a farm. The organic part is new to me, though.”

Hollingsworth wants to own a farm of his own at some point. The idea of growing sustainable crops is something he had never considered.

“I didn’t know what made something organic. I like the idea of the goal to better the environment,” Hollingsworth said.

Hollingsworth and others are involved from the get-go in every phase of production. The farm goes year-round to accommodate for seasonal crops. That means there is always planting, growing and harvesting.

Seiter said winter is the slow season with little being harvested, but planting begins in January. The focus is on leafy green vegetables. Summer also produces a variety of crops but there are few students around to work the farm.

The demand from the school is small but students who are there offer an on-campus farmer’s market for faculty, staff and the public once a week.

“Summer provides us with a good learning opportunity,” Seiter said. “We have some interns here who are paid a small amount through private donations to help keep the garden in shape.”

Many of those crops like tomatoes, peppers and herbs are ready to harvest in the fall when culinary arts kicks into high gear. Harvesting can continue into November.

This spring LBCC’s organic farmers planted some new beds. Maigyn Luthe was among those getting their first taste of the process from Seiter and instructional assistant Miriam Edell.

Luthe traveled a long way to dig in the Oregon dirt.

“I hitchhiked here from Arkansas,” said Luthe, 25. “The ecological and environmental movements were a big reason. I started in this program last winter. I love the organic lifestyle.”

Edell was showing Luthe and others some tricks they didn’t expect. Students were laying down newspaper and covering it lightly with straw as weed suppressant. Compost followed and then the plants.

“This is my favorite part,” said Ashlynn Hendricks of Corvallis. “It’s all hands-on, you’re outside and taking part in something worthwhile.”

Hendricks is looking to get a degree in horticulture and put her organic gardening skills to immediate work. She plans to join the Peace Corps after getting a degree at Oregon State.

“Where I go I know I’ll have to be helping people sustain themselves,” Hendricks said.

The values of an environmentally strong approach to harvesting are a big part of what the sustainable program offers to students, but Seiter knows there is more.

“They are learning the economics of it as well,” he said. “Other classes are starting to develop. Our Profitable Small Farms certificate this fall is part of that.”

Seiter said the program is one of the most exciting offshoots. Students will learn to succeed with a small sustainable farm in an entrepreneurial approach.

That will include more than just growing successful food crops. Seiter is counting on students learning about the local food movement by creating a business plan, learning direct marketing, and the entire business side of small farming.

Students get some of that by selling their wares to culinary arts. Ketterman said it’s basically a business relationship.

“We treat them like a vendor,” he said. “I let them know what I’d like to have and I usually have it the next day. They even have it washed and cleaned up.”

Seiter’s class contacts culinary arts when product is harvested and takes an order at that time. The collaboration between the two programs has been in place for a long time.

“They look at us as another supplier and use our stuff when they can,” Seiter said. “Their mission, as is ours, is to teach and they have been flexible with us because of that.”

Ketterman said that the two programs have more in common than not.

“We try to give them a fair market price. We all have a tight budget but we have come to a good agreement,” Ketterman said. “We have similar goals of sustainability.”

Ketterman may be getting more choices in the future. The garden has expanded from the lone bed it started with some years ago. Fruit trees have been added and Seiter said other perennials are being integrated into the garden.

The garden is also open to the community outside LBCC. For a $50 fee almost anyone can get a plot. The money covers irrigation expenses.

The value of the garden extends to other classes at LBCC as well. Students from all over campus benefit with classes from biology to art making use of the acreage.

Seiter believes the sustainable program offers a great opportunity to expand classes and impact many more departments.

“A lot can be done with the health aspects and business aspects,” he said.

For some it goes beyond the practical.

Hendricks sees something more. What she gains from the class has instilled a passion in her.

“I love it all and I believe in its healthy impact on society. It’s inspring to see it grow. It’s therapeutic,” she said. “For me it’s a spiritual type thing.”