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NMSU students team up in veggie production, food prep, composting cycle

As part of a collaborative arrangement among departments and student organizations in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, New Mexico State University students are growing produce and supplying it to a campus restaurant, the 100 West Cafe.

Man in tan shirt and sunglasses cuts a piece of okra from a flowering plant that's taller than he is. Campus buildings and parked vehicles are in the backgrou
Bryce Richard, an undergraduate agricultural biology major, harvests okra in the vegetable garden at the new Student-Centered Field Laboratory west of Gerald Thomas Hall. The assistant field lab manager, Richard is one of several students involved in a vegetable pilot project that is supplying fresh produce to the nearby 100 West Café, operated by the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)
A cinder-block structure painted red on the outside has a pile of organic matter inside one of three screened sections. Both the wall of the structure and a blu
NMSU's Environmental Science Student Organization recently completed the construction of a new composting facility south of Gerald Thomas Hall. They are processing food waste from the 100 West Café, some of which comes from vegetables grown in the nearby Student-Centered Field Lab and supplied to the café on contract. The mature compost will be plowed back into the garden, completing a sustainability loop. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

At the cafe, students in several School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management classes prepare the vegetables for incorporation into the menu.

The trimmings and table scraps are then picked up by members of the Environmental Science Student Organization for processing at their new composting facility.

The mature compost will eventually be plowed back into the soil of the vegetable garden to supply nutrients to next year's crops.

The project combines several university priorities, including the encouragement of hands-on learning experiences for students and the desire for an increasingly sustainable campus operation.

The cycle begins with students in a section of the new Student-Centered Field Laboratory west of Gerald Thomas Hall.

Mark Uchanski, an assistant professor of horticulture in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, works with students there on organic farming methods and vegetable production. He oversees a quarter of an acre of the new research field, where about 16 rows are devoted to this vegetable pilot project.

He said a dozen vegetables either have been or are being produced in the garden operation: tomatoes, lettuce mix, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, kale, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and cilantro.

"The Student-Centered Field Lab was established earlier this year, in the spring of 2012, and it's meant to be an experiential learning place for students in the College of ACES and beyond," Uchanski said.

Referring specifically to the vegetable pilot project, he said, "It's my hope that students get a real-life experience, getting down and dirty, but also getting to see all aspects of vegetable production, from the sales and marketing end of things to the post-harvest washing and storage, and a little bit of everything in between."

One student who has certainly gotten that range of experiences is Bryce Richard, an undergraduate agricultural biology major and the assistant field lab manager.

"Even before we planted, we met with the chefs in the 100 West Cafe and got their opinions on what they could use and how much they were going to need," he said. "From that we were able to look at published documents giving us yields per variety and then calculate how much we needed to plant in order to meet their needs."

Richard and his fellow students have been harvesting everything that is ripe, taking it to a washing station set up for the project, cleaning and sorting the fresh produce, and then delivering it to the nearby 100 West Cafe.

Maurice Zeck, a college assistant professor and the cafe's head chef, expressed enthusiasm for the way things have worked out.

"The vegetables are fresh and they are grown right here," he said. "From a collegial perspective, we're working with other departments within the college of agriculture. There's absolutely no down side. And the fact that it's sustainable and it's local, that's all sugar on the top."

October vegetables from the student garden included several varieties of cucumbers, as well as okra, eggplant and tomatoes. The students were also beginning to supply kale and lettuce as they transitioned to cold-season crops.

On one Thursday in mid-October, the lunch menu included sliced, marinated lemon cucumbers, and sauteed kale and other greens.

"When customers know that it was grown here by students, they smile," Zeck said. "It makes them feel good about it."

Back over near the field lab garden, ESSO students under the guidance of faculty adviser William Lindemann have been breaking in their newly constructed composting facility.

The three-sided cinder-block structure is approximately four feet in height and is partitioned into three sections, each covering approximately 20 square feet in area. They look a bit like miniature handball courts. Open on the south side, each bin has a hinged four-panel heavy screen that sits on top and folds down to fully enclose the space. The screening keeps out animals while allowing air circulation. The southern orientation maximizes exposure to sunlight, which accelerates the composting process.

Lindemann is a professor in PES whose expertise includes soil science. He said ESSO's past activities include recycling projects that have garnered national recognition. He praised the students' initiative in building the facility and setting up the composting arrangement with the chefs at the 100 West Cafe.

He and three ESSO students were mixing more material into one of the compost piles recently as he discussed the composting process and its place in this "cycle of vegetables."

"Eventually the material that's going in here, like this potato, is going to end up as black humic material," he said, displaying some fresh food waste on a pitchfork. The pile it came from was about a cubic yard in size, so the next step would be to allow the various components - the fungi, bacteria, soil insects and organic matter - to finish their job.

"Probably by the end of January or February this will be ready to put on the field," he said.

The students had already begun a second pile in the adjoining bin.

In terms of the future for the vegetable pilot project, Uchanski would like to see the production side double or triple in size, if the demand on campus expands.

Production could start much earlier, too. This was an organizational year, with a focus on getting the system established, and actual production didn't begin until well into the summer. Spring planting in the future will allow much earlier produce deliveries.

"If someone were to plant pole beans, if someone were to plant peas, we could certainly use those vegetables," Zeck said, giving a few examples of early season crops that the cafe would welcome. "Scalloped summer squash, zucchini, yellow squash, all very workable."

"It is conceivable that we could buy nearly all of our produce from the student groups," he said.

On the recycling end of things, the ESSO composting facility could certainly handle more vegetable waste, if additional dining facilities are brought into the project.

Following these vegetables on their path from field to fork to the fungi in the compost bins, and finally back into the field, it is obvious that there is abundant student energy to expand sustainability and recycling on the campus. This pilot project may not only evolve into something greater, it may inspire similar thinking elsewhere at the university and beyond.