Luther College gardens supply produce and perspective

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April 13, 2009

Luther College's student-run garden plots fit into a small corner of campus, but last year its 318 pounds of cucumbers, 189 pounds of varied beans and 126 pounds of pumpkins and squash are just a sample of the produce harvested and supplied to Luther Dining Services.

The gardens are projects of Luther's Environmental Concerns Organization and provide Luther students, faculty and staff with organically-grown fruits, vegetables and herbs. The produce is part of the college's initiative to use more locally grown and pesticide-free foods, and the gardens serve to educate students and the community about the health and other benefits of organic agriculture.

"Sustainability is emerging as one of Luther's core values, and the administration recognizes that the garden is one way in which Luther can meet its sustainability goals outlined in its five-year strategic plan," said garden manager Flannery Cerbin, a senior environmental studies major. "I think the cafeteria is trying get 30 percent of its food from local sources by 2010, and nothing gets more local then Luther's own garden!"

The garden has three plots on Luther-owned land, two directly on campus behind the Baker Village student housing complex and one less than a mile from campus. Cerbin said one full-time manager and two part-time workers run the gardens during the summer, plus volunteers who help prepare beds, sow seeds and harvest in the spring and fall.

The most common crops grown in the gardens include green and yellow beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, peppers, carrots, zucchini, butternut squash, peas, herbs and many more vegetables.

This past summer, the garden produce provided to Oneota Cafe was increased 30 percent more than in the summer of 2007. Gardeners hope the 2009 season will produce a similar increase.

According to Deb Aske, Oneota Market supervisor, the produce from the garden is used in a variety of ways, such as raw in the salad bar, tossed salads, ingredients to cook lunch specials, on the grill and panini lines for sandwiches, in veggie bags and in Luther-made salsa.

"Buying locally grown products is expensive, but when we get them through Luther's gardens, we tend to get things a bit cheaper," said Aske. "Plus we know where it comes from and that it is fresh and clean."

But the benefits stretch beyond the budget, according to Aske.

"Getting the local foods and ingredients has been a huge success with students," said Aske. "They enjoy it when we use the locally grown produce, and it is even more fun to see it come from the hard working hands of our students through the Luther garden."

Cerbin, from La Crosse, Wis., served as garden manager during the 2008 season and will continue in that role during the 2009 season. She values the role the Luther gardens have in the growing movement of working toward sustainable operation on Luther's campus.

"Sustainability is really the only option facing us today, and everyone - students, faculty, staff, the guy down the street - needs to start thinking about the consequences of our actions," said Cerbin. "I think it's wonderful that Luther is holding itself accountable as we strive to become better global citizens and more in tune with the natural environment."

Immediate goals for the garden, according to Cerbin, include expansion and diversification of crops with hopes of increasing yield while upholding organic farming philosophies.

"I hope that having a student-run garden makes a food-system visible because so many people are completely unaware of where their food comes from and do not think about the people behind the food," said Cerbin. "Since working in the gardens, I appreciate the work, time and effort it takes to produce healthy and nutritious food."

Photo caption: Luther students Flannery Cerbin 09 and Heidi Skildum 08 tend to one of the three Luther gardens during summer 2008. Cerbin (right) will serve a second term as garden manager during summer 2009.