Western Pa. farming efforts grow in college

| Monday, Oct. 18, 2010

This year's growing season is winding down, but local colleges are looking to build on their campus farming efforts.

"I really hope more people get involved, because it's a valuable experience to connect with the earth," said Billy Epting, 22, a Carnegie Mellon grad student who helped develop a campus garden near the Solar Decathlon House.

Pitt students this year started an urban garden dubbed The Farm. In 2008, Chatham University began working on a 388-acre farm the school took over in the North Hills.

All three schools are part of a growing trend of college students taking an active role in producing their own food on campus.

Each of the gardens provides food for their volunteers. Pitt students organize potluck dinners with dishes made from the garden. Chatham sells some produce grown at the former Eden Hall Farm in Richland at a weekly farmers market on its Oakland campus and sometimes provides ingredients to the dining hall.

"Students are so far removed from the family farm, from the outdoors," said Kerri LaCharite, a Chatham professor who teaches classes on organic gardening and sustainable growing. "They have this craving to connect back to food and nature."

Chatham's two gardens total less than an acre but produce a lot of, well, produce. The yield includes squash, pumpkins, kale and onions as well as 10 types of tomatoes and four varieties of eggplant. About 30 students, graduate and undergraduate, tend to the farm as part of their studies, and other volunteers swap labor for food, LaCharite said.

The gardens at Pitt and CMU are not part of the universities' curricula, though the groups believe their efforts are educational.

"We really have no idea where food comes from, especially on a college campus with all the cafeterias," said senior psychology major Reva Gorelick, president of Pitt's "Plant to Plate" student group.

The university gave the group use of a plot off Oakland Avenue. Students have grown an array of produce, including zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, green beans and strawberries. The garden draws attention from many students in addition to the nearly 60 who help with planting, weeding and harvesting, Gorelick said.

CMU's plot produced healthy yields of tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss chard and herbs, in addition to other produce. Fall projects include building better fencing, which hopefully will keep out the rabbits that devoured the beans and peppers, Epting said. Early planting next year might help the corn and blueberries, which didn't do too well this year, he said.

A sign will be added, which hopefully will add to the dozen or so people who participate, Epting said.

"I feel like a lot of people see it and think it's cool," he said. "But they have no idea about how to join us."

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