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Garden yields abundance in produce and learning

On a three-acre plot at Tukey Orchard on the eastern edge of campus, the fruits of WSU’s first season of Community Supported Agriculture are earning rave reviews.

“Oh the strawberries!” enthused Wanda Hvezda, picking up her brown waxed produce box one recent Friday afternoon. “The big strawberries at the store have no flavor anymore. These are just bursting with flavor.”

Hvezda, a student adviser at WSU’s Intensive American Language Center, is one of 87 subscribers who paid a set fee last spring in exchange for receiving a fresh box of organic produce — and recipes — once a week from late May through October.

The particular beauty of WSU’s Community Supported Agriculture project — beyond the rows of purple and yellow statice flowers bordering field greens giving way to rows of lazily swaying corn stalks — is that it is first and foremost a teaching tool for the university’s Organic Farm Project.

Four-fold mission
Once a fallow plot surrounded by rows and rows of apple and pear trees, said manager Brad Jaeckel, the Organic Farm Project has a four-fold mission:
• hands-on education in organic farming techniques,
• raising public awareness regarding organic agriculture and sustainable agricultural practices,
• ensuring food security or availability to low-income residents of the Palouse, and
• providing consumers with great-tasting produce.

To that end, Jaeckel plants, tends and harvests the food with the help of students and volunteers from the community. Some students work at the farm to fulfill community service obligations, but students interested in organic agriculture also can earn course credit working at the farm. Additionally, community volunteers who work 2 1/2 hours each week receive a half share of produce. Already this season, Jaeckel said, volunteers have logged more than 500 hours at the farm.

“I couldn’t be happier with how it has worked out,” he said.

Time ripe for organic ag major
Crop and soils professor John Reganold, who heads the Organic Farm Project and is leading an effort to establish organic agriculture as a major at WSU, said the original plan was simply to create an organic farm on campus to support field courses in organics. While WSU has long been a national leader in the nascent field of organic agriculture research, he said, students have never been able to major in it or work in an organic agriculture environment.

The organic agriculture major is still several months from approval, Reganold said, but the organic farm is thriving.

The goal for the first year was to get 50 fresh-produce subscribers, he said, but nearly twice that many people wanted to join.

“There is the demand and the community wants it,” Reganold said. “The possibilities are endless.”

In the warmth of the September sunshine, Hvezda was heading home with a box brimming with a variety of freshly harvested vegetables including brilliant yellow summer squash, bite-size Yellow Pear and Sungold tomatoes, spinach and salad greens. While certain vegetables, such as salad greens, are harvested throughout the season, others, such as kohlrabi or garlic scapes, make more fleeting appearances. Week after week, subscribers expect their box will have tried-and-true stalwarts as well as a surprise or two.

“It’s a pretty huge commitment,” Jaeckel said. “It’s a crazy thing to do.”

But not unheard of.

Subscribing not a new idea
The concept of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, started in Switzerland and Japan in the early 1960s, took hold in the United States in the mid-1980s and programs now number at least 1,000 according to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association.

The idea of CSA projects is that farmers and consumers form a partnership and share the risk that is usually borne entirely by farmers. Consumers pay in advance for a share (or half-share) of the season’s bounty, delivered in weekly installments. CSA rates this season ran $500 for a full share and $300 for a half share.

“My part of the agreement is that I do everything I can to provide an adequate amount of produce for the members,” Jaeckel said.

So far this season, with just two acres in production, the farm has yielded enough produce to fill the weekly boxes with between 3 and 15 pounds of vegetables, sell the excess at the farmers market and contribute more than five shares every week to the Pullman Food Bank and other local aid agencies.

Next year, Jaeckel said, he plans to plant the third acre of the three-acre plot and enroll at least 100 subscribers. As the acreage grows, so will his need for ready hands to weed, harvest and wash the produce.

Hvezda, who especially loves those ruby-red strawberries, said working in the fields is part of the fun.

“The fun part is, you come on Tuesday or Friday mornings and you get to do the harvest,” she said. But, it’s best to come early. “If you aren’t one of the lucky ones,” she said and laughed, “you do the weeding.”

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