Every Wednesday, a group of students and their advisors meet at the University’s new greenhouses southeast of campus. In the humid air, they plant seeds in pots, talking and laughing as they go. Once finished, they place the pots on a table alongside fledgling sprouts.
Short for Environmental Action Team, EnAcT is an undergraduate student group that established an organic farm at the University. With the help of family, friends and University faculty, ENACT is cultivating a community of learning and conservation through its crops.
Erin Hansen, 19, project coordinator for the organic farm, spearheaded the idea for the farm with Mattie Melrose in their introductory course in environmental studies. The idea for the organic farm stemmed from the duo’s environmental citizenship class project.
Hansen and Melrose conducted their research on local food sources and how far food travels to reach people’s plates.
“Produce travels an average of 2,000 miles,” Hansen said. “If you consider the carbon footprint, that’s a huge distance to travel.”
Through their research, Hansen and Melrose began to develop an idea and a growing interest in agricultural practices and the health, environmental and communal benefits of starting their own produce. They created EnAcT in March to start the student organic farm, with the Jen Huntleysmith, associate director of academics and outreach at the University’s Academy for the Environment, as faculty advisor.
EnAcT also enlisted the help of Leslie Allen, a horticulturalist from University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, and Kevin Piper, assistant director of the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station and CABNR.
UNCE’s Master Gardeners program provided the students with seeds, plants and greenhouse space for the students to get a head start on planting crops. The College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources offered them a plot of land on the Valley Road farms.
Allen meets with the student group once a week, assisting and consulting them with her expertise.
“I advise them in incorporating sustainable elements in farming to help them create a functioning ecology in their farm,” Allen said.
The students started planting seeds in late May and hope to have crops planted on the land by mid-July. They also hope to sell produce at the Environmental Education Eco-Night at the downtown West Street Market on August 13 and at a campus fall festival, currently being planned for October, Hansen said. Until July, the students are building a compost pile and growing what they can in the greenhouse in hopes of growing enough crops before the August and October markets and before September.
“We already have a short growing season in the region as is,” Allen said of the tight schedule. “The students are cutting that time almost in half.”
Because of their short growing time, the students are growing short-season crops such as leafy greens, squashes, flowers, corn and herbs, Allen said.
The students chose to grow heritage or heirloom plants, which are types of plants that have not been hybridized or genetically altered. Many of these heirloom plants are endangered and are generally harder to grow.
“They’re starting to be lost because the hybrids are tougher and they grow faster,” Huntleysmith said. “I think it’s cool the students here decided to take this a step further. Growing heritage plants is a little bit more complex and requires more work, nurturing and attention.”
In rallying supporters with common concerns around their idea, the students of EnAcT have fulfilled one of their goals in the project: creating a sense of community. Hansen also said that in growing the crops, she hopes to reestablish the link people have with their food.
“We have lost our connection to food: we don’t know where our food comes from and we don’t really eat meals together,” Hansen said. “In this project, we grow food together. It’s an important social activity.”
Huntleysmith also recognizes the importance of the human relationship with food.
“I love the fact that we’re doing something that’s really basic,” Huntleysmith said. “It really gets down to the basic human relationship with the environment which is we need food and we need to obtain that food that’s going to be consistent over time.”
A member of EnAcT, Jasmine Jia, 19, is partaking in the project to learn about growing healthy food. Jia also understands the danger of depending on commercial food sources in the event of large outbreaks of food contamination or natural disasters.
“In the case of natural disasters and if you need to grow your own food, it’s important to know how,” the second year health ecology major said.
For Jia, the resulting crops are not the most important outcome of the project. She said she believes what she learns in the greenhouse and on the farm is more important than the physical rewards of her hard work.
“I’m not even looking for a result but for the knowledge we gain and the experience is really valuable,” Jia said. “Not a lot of people know that you can put different plants together and have it work with nature and the natural tendency of the plants instead of fighting against it.”
As a horticulturist working with young people, Allen is amazed by the spark of interest the students have in sustainable agriculture and plant sciences.
“I think it’s exciting that there is a demand from student for sustainable agricultural practices,” Allen said.
Those interested in helping with the farm are encouraged to contact Erin Hansen at email@example.com. Help is needed during weekends in July when the group will be digging, planting and setting up the irrigation infrastructure.