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When Vince Giorgio '13 was writing a paper about the American food distribution system and its reliance on industrialized agriculture, what he learned shocked him. "It's all about depleting the soil, adding fertilizer, depleting the soil, adding more fertilizer, and so on and so on," said Giorgio, who wrote the paper to meet the requirements for an honors course in environmental sociology he took with Brian Jennings, Ph.D.
While writing his paper, Giorgio also looked at alternative, more sustainable methods of producing food. That's when he learned about an agricultural technique called permaculture.
With permaculture the garden is built up on top of the soil, rather than dug into it, explained Giorgio, an international business and environmental studies student from Rehrersburg, Pa. Cardboard is laid down first as a weed barrier, then layers of manure, newspaper, straw, leaves and compost are piled on top. Eventually the cardboard decomposes, and the soil is built up and enriched as organic material is added to the mix.
"The beauty of it is that it's environmentally sustainable because you're building up soil rather than putting on harsh fertilizer," Giorgio said. "It's all broken down compost, so over time it actually creates a stronger soil system." That's in stark contrast to the large-scale agricultural method Giorgio learned about while writing his paper for Jennings' class.
"Permaculture is the opposite of the chemical input model where you continue to till off the soil and lose many of the nutrients in the process," said Jennings, assistant professor of sociology. "So you have to put fertilizers in to renew the soil strength and give it the same nutrient capability."
What Giorgio learned also inspired him to turn his paper into a proposal that a garden be created on campus to help students learn that there are ways of producing food that are much more sustainable and do much less damage to the environment.
The idea was not entirely new, since both Jennings and Andrea Chapdelaine, Ph.D., provost and vice president for academic affairs, had also given some thought to creating a campus garden. Chapdelaine was interested in making use of organic waste from dining services, and Jennings hoped to demonstrate to his students that there's a better way to farm.
"I teach a lot about industrial agriculture and the problems associated with it," Jennings said, "and I feel that if I'm going to teach about it I need to provide solutions. This is our small-scale way of showing students that it's possible to work with nature rather than against it."
Giorgio's proposal—and the availability of enough space to create a 42' by 32' garden between the Multi-Faith Center and Geiser House (home of the Experiential Learning and Career Development Center)—was the impetus to get the garden started.
Thus it was that the 1800 block of Linden Street was a hotbed of activity the last weekend in March, as 40-some volunteers descended on the area to transform the lawn between the two buildings into a campus garden.
Employing a process called sheet mulching, the industrious gardeners worked with cardboard, compost and straw to establish the garden beds. They also installed mulched pathways, a rain barrel and compost bins over the damp and dreary weekend.
Because the garden is both experimental and in its seedling stage, there are many questions yet to be answered. For instance, who will maintain it not only during the school year but also over the summer, and what will become of the vegetables the garden yields?
"I'm branching out and recruiting other students," Giorgio said. "We've teamed up with the Environmental Campus Outreach club, and we're looking to partner with students whose scholarships require them to do volunteer work. We're trying to make this a community effort to educate the campus on sustainability."
Options for maintaining the garden over the summer include asking faculty and staff to pitch in when there aren't as many students on campus. "There are some faculty here over the summer who are passionate about gardening and may be willing to put in a couple hours each week," Giorgio noted.
That's not to say that students wouldn't be involved at all over the summer months. "Over the summer there are students here doing research, there are student workers in the conference office, and there are students taking classes," Chapdelaine said. "So I think that between students and staff we can do it."
Giorgio's ultimate goal is to have the garden tied into the College's curriculum."An aspiration of mine is to take it from a group of ragtag passionate students to working its way into the environmental studies curriculum," he said.
The possibilities include creating a food track that focuses on the biological world and the social world and how that relates to food and food development, Jennings said. "So it actually becomes a hands-on portion of the curriculum where students can learn about industrial food production in America and then participate in an alternative method.
"We could also create Albright Creative Research Experience projects that use the experimental aspect of the garden," Jennings added. "Students could look at different gardening techniques and see what kind of yield results from each."
While many aspects of the garden are still up in the air, one thing Giorgio and his fellow studentgardeners know is that success breeds success.
So the first year they're putting in plants that should do well, such as tomatoes, lettuce and beans. And they'll only be planting part of the garden's capacity so they're sure they can keep up with it.
"The students are being very smart, very careful to not over-commit the first year," Chapdelaine said. "They're taking gradual steps, so the first year it'll be a basic garden that they'll build on in the coming years."
And what will become of the harvest that does result? The options include having volunteers take some home, working out a partnership with dining services, and sharing it with the surrounding community.
In any case, the yield the garden produces is deemed much less important than the educational experience it provides.
"I can't stress enough that it needs to be a learning process for all the parties involved," Jennings said. "There will be many hurdles we face from the beginning, but we should learn from each of those hurdles. It's our first year, so there will be a lot of trial and error."
"I think the biggest value of a garden on campus is that it allows for an experiential learning opportunity for our students," Chapdelaine added. "Whether they be environmental science students who are learning about sustainability or business students learning about leadership and management, they'll be able to apply those concepts to something that will not only benefit our community but will also show results in terms of the produce we get out of it.
"I'm excited about it from the environmental perspective," Chapdelaine added, "but even more important to me is the opportunity for students to show good stewardship and leadership. And I've been thrilled with the ownership they've taken on it so far."
On-camera interviews with Vince Giorgio '13 and Brian
reporter contentsalbright college