This fall, students from Davis &Elkins College were not afraid of getting their hands dirty with a community agriculture project on the West Side of Charleston. About a dozen sustainability studies and environmental science students are creating a micro-farm on a donated residential property, designed to encourage entrepreneurship and improve health and self-sufficiency in that neighborhood.
But for the D&E students, it's not just days of service. It's the beginning of a multi-year project that will have a significant impact on the lives of West Side residents and allows students to connect the classroom to the community.
"I have seen first-hand the benefits of hands-on immersion outside the classroom, as well as creating and maintaining strong communities through student-centered projects such as this," said Russ McClain, director of the Center for Sustainability Studies at D&E. "We are excited about refining ways to improve communities, from the design stage to the execution."
Photo courtesy of Nanci Bross-Fregonara
D&E student project foreman Mark Lanham, far left, leads the planning discussion during a Sustainability Studies class period.
The students are working, literally, from the ground up. After their first visit to the site with partners from the Charleston Area Alliance to measure potential plot sizes, investigate infrastructure needs, and meet with local chefs and restaurant owners, they went back in the classroom to design the layout of the garden, first using foam core then computer design programs. Recently they went back to the site to not only create the teaching gardens, but also create an aesthetically pleasing green space for the neighborhood.
"This project really gives us a chance to get our feet wet and deal with sustainability issues out in the field," said Sydney Mucha, a sophomore from Bridgeport, while she was reviewing the plot sizes and walkways.
The genesis for the Sustainable Agricultural Entrepreneur Initiative (SAGE) project was a study conducted through the West Side Farmers Market which found a significant need and market for fresh, local produce on the West Side of Charleston, including for local restaurants. According to the study, local residents are currently living in a food desert, with many in need of additional income, and the micro-farm aims to fill that market gap. This is where D&E's involvement began.
For many of the students, this type of experiential learning is preferable to simply a textbook or lecture. "I really like a hands-on project like this," said Crystal Simons, a sophomore from Buckhannon. "We learn more that way and I enjoy working with other partners. We are looking at even the business aspects of this garden so that is much more relevant to what I might pursue after college."
Part of the project includes researching gardening details such as freshwater catchments and drip irrigation, market demand for heirloom vegetables, or the best pollinator flowers.
"I feel like we are really addressing a need within this urban community," said Jenna Gilmore, a junior from Elkins. "I'm looking forward to the workshops that will show the residents how to grow and market their produce. It will really help build up their economy."
The service aspect of this learning project is significant. For one student, the micro-farm allows him to continue his interest in sustainability that began in high school in Virginia. "It was so interesting working on a retention pond project in Manassas," said Luke Goldman, now a D&E sophomore Sustainability Studies major. "I like doing projects like this because it makes me feel good helping a community that's struggling."
Several students echoed that sentiment as well as the notion that the micro-farm is not just a one-time project that is planted then left alone.
"This is the type of project that will keep going; people will continue to benefit from it," said Nicole Wyatt of Elkins. Another student is looking forward to returning to the site later to see how it is growing. "We will have put a lot of time and effort into the project," said Shauna Damon of Mt. Wolf, Pa. "I'll still want to volunteer two years from now when it is really going."
While one student enjoys the chance to explore on-line design tools, another appreciates being student project foreman for the garden. "Not only does this project help the neighborhood," said Mark Lanham of Elkins, "but, what I really like is watching the students work together. It will be very gratifying to see their work become reality."
According to McClain, the project provides an opportunity for students to put the mission of the institution in a real world application. "When we say part of our mission is to inspire students for thoughtful engagement in the world, it isn't just a slogan," McClain said.
The Center for Sustainability Studies received a WV Campus Compact grant which provided the necessary seed money for the project and the partnership connection with the Charleston Area Alliance, which will take the next step of garden classroom instruction for local residents. The Center's prior success with community gardens in Elkins was instrumental in securing the funding.
"I'm grateful to have these experiences available to our students which are similar to those I had at the graduate school level. Faculty relish the opportunity to include projects like this beyond the classroom," McClain said.
Thomas Toliver, director of Family & Youth Development Services in Charleston, is also thankful. Working side by side with the students this fall, he expressed how they are "an encouragement to me as we work together to make a difference in the lives of the children in this community."
He added, "Volunteers with their passion and dedication are so hard to come by. It is one thing for people to give money, but for [the students] to give so selflessly of their time speaks volumes."
For more information, please visit the D&E website at www.dewv.edu or call 304-637-1243.