Young agrarians at Wash. U. hope to bring us back to the garden

Aug 13, 2008 at 4:00 am

On the first day of August, Washington University's student-farmers stood over their hand-hewn outdoor sink at high noon, elbow-deep in basil. The pungent green herb was by far the summer's bumper crop. That evening, they planned to serve friends of the farm a dinner of caprese salad (mozzarella and basil), tilapia with basil pesto, pasta with basil pesto and, according to junior Vidya Santosh, "anything else we come up with that calls for basil."

The Burning Kumquat, as it's called, is a relatively small garden — 70 by 110 feet — rooted next to the university's alumni offices off Forsyth Boulevard. Gourds and sunflowers frame bedded rows of beans, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, okra, and radishes. Compost and fish poop (literally) serve as fertilizer.

"There're a lot of ideas behind it," says cofounder Ted Erker. "I was initially intrigued by the fact that I didn't know a lot about food, like what it even looked like growing."

The first university farms date back nearly a half-century, but only in the last few years has the idea of sustainable, local food systems sprouted a whole new crop of student-run organic farms. Tim Galarneau, a spokesman for the Real Food Challenge, a national sustainability campaign beginning this fall on college campuses, estimates that some 300 colleges boast organic farms or other sustainable food initiatives.

"Our goal is to boost our national food budget for sustainably produced foods from 2 percent to 20 percent by 2020," says Galarneau. "We think college campuses are the place to begin, because they've always been historic places of change."

The current output from university farms varies widely when it comes to quantity and distribution. Some college gardens serve small farm stands on campus or at nearby farmers' markets. Other student gardens supply dining halls and even some area restaurants.

At Wash. U., Erker and recent graduate Kacie Smith sowed the Burning Kumquat's roots last fall with grants of almost $2,500 from the university and Gateway Greening, a local nonprofit.

Dozens of students showed up during weekly workdays throughout the school year and more than a handful stayed in St. Louis this summer to till the plot. After working 9-to-5 jobs Monday through Thursday, they rise early Friday to harvest, and again on Saturday to bicycle their bounty over to a stand at the north-city farmers' market. The money they make goes right back into the ground.

The goals, for now, are modest. The young agrarians, few with much experience, are learning as they go. Their spring beets and spinach failed — owing, perhaps, to young soil. Some bunny rabbits have shown a rabid appetite for the summer beans. "When you don't come to the farm every day," acknowledges Erker, "pest control can be a problem."