Farmstand helps grow students’ organic gardening and scientific savvy

George Williams College students enjoyed the fruits of their labor last Thursday during the fourth annual Harvest Dinner held on campus. Many of the night’s offerings will include produce grown at the Research and Education Farm (REF), located on the upper campus and managed by students.

The farm yields a cornucopia of fresh, organically grown produce, including summer favorites such as blueberries, cucumbers and squash, as well as such hard-to-find vegetables as mezuna (a salad green) and, in the fall, Chinese cabbage.

Community members are able to enjoy selections from the garden during late summer and early fall. Students sell produce at a stand near the farm. The produce stand first opened in 2015, an outgrowth of the REF, which first began limited production in 2013. The REF provides a hands-on opportunity for majors in sustainability and environmental management and others to learn about organic growing techniques and sustainable systems, with a little entrepreneurialism mixed in to boot.

Growing vegetables also provides students the opportunity to experiment with different organic methods, honing their critical-thinking skills in the process, according to Assistant Professor Richard Boniak, who oversees both the REF and the farm stand.

Projects have included testing various commercially available composters, as well as putting traditional organic gardening practices to scientific scrutiny. Students have evaluated the benefits of using compost “tea” as fertilizer and whether it’s feasible to raise vegetables by planting into bales of semi-decomposed straw. They have even assisted Boniak in a two-year study designed to determine whether using various types of weed barriers increases tomato yields. He plans to publish the findings later this year.

Hayden King, a senior majoring in sustainability and environmental management who plans to work in water quality management after he graduates, said helping out at the REF and the produce stand has been one of the most gratifying of his college experiences.

 “I am a very visual, practical learner,” he said. “Being able to connect a concept that we learned about in class with something we’re doing in the field is helpful for me. The REF helps provide a good balance of theory and practice.”

Several of Boniak’s students have expressed an interest in pursuing community gardening or urban agriculture. “This experience will help them succeed in that,” he said. “They will also be able to teach others about organic gardening and the impact food production has on the environment. They are very enthusiastic about it. At the farm stand students spent a lot of time explaining to customers how the food was grown.”