FALL 1997 - Volume 15 Number 1
UM's Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society
by Marga Lincoln
This spring, twenty-five University of Montana students in the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) planted their own classroom, transforming a knapweed pasture at Fort Missoula into a flourishing organic farm that will yield thousands of pounds of vegetables. When the semester started, the students couldn't recognize an arugula plant. Now they proudly show off rows of greens, potatoes, tomatoes, beets, onions, echinacea, sunflowers, eggplants, pumpkins, broccoli and peas-plants they sowed and zealously watered and weeded.
Students learned how to operate power tools, build sheds and set up irrigation systems. They also learned how plants grow, how classical plant breeding differs from genetic engineering and when to add amendments to correct a particular soil problem.
The harvest goes to the sixty members of the Garden City Harvest Project's community supported agricultural co-op. Half are low-income households, half are those who bought a weekly share of the season's harvest. This concept of subscription organic farming-or community supported agriculture-is a growing international movement.
PEAS was cultivated by philosophy Associate Professor Deborah Slicer and two alumni-organic farmer Josh Slotnick and nutritionist Mary Feuersinger Pittaway. In the three-semester program that mixes fieldwork, plant science lectures and field trips during the growing season, students learn first-hand where food comes from and how to grow it. They also learn about the politics of food production and distribution and about topics ranging from agricultural policy to agriculture's influence on the arts. And along the way, they learn about building community.
Food is no longer an abstraction for these students. "Students learn the social and environmental cost of food production locally, nationally and worldwide," said Slicer. They learn what farmers have to cope with, she added, like how to raise a healthy crop from a sandy, infertile field during the coldest June in twenty-two years.
Slotnick said the course is like "learning a foreign language by immersion." On the first day of class, for example, students seemed helpless about doing anything physical. "Now, they just jump in and do the work," he said.
"It's not only farming you learn here," said senior Vanessa Morrison as she pitched straw out of the back of a pickup one sunny June morning. "You learn practical skills and life skills," she said. "You also learn you can do anything."
Students said the course profoundly affected their awareness of food. "I'm so aware of what I eat now," said senior Caroline Smith. Morrison said, as a result of the course, she decided to "only buy organic, except for oranges." Senior Shea Harman said she became aware of the importance of buying local produce. Students also said it has been inspiring to meet local growers who successfully run small-scale organic farms.
Sometimes a Great Notion
The seeds for PEAS were sown in spring 1995 when Slotnik and Slicer discussed creating a UM program to provide produce for low-income Missoulians and teach students about organic farming. Slotnik, who wrote his master's thesis on organic farming education, credits Slicer for making PEAS a reality. When Slicer proposed the program to Pittaway, who administers nutrition programs at the Missoula City-County Health Department, Pittaway told her, "You are exactly the piece to the puzzle we've been trying to put together for two years."
This unique collaboration bloomed when the University and the health department secured a highly competitive $100,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to start the Garden City Harvest Project (GCH). Created in the wake of welfare reform, the project includes programs to glean food from commercial growers, can produce and encourage local gardeners to grow a row of produce for the Missoula Food Bank. UM's part of the project-the PEAS program-is just one of six programs that make up GCH. Its mission is to produce high-quality food for low-income people. "We are also learning self-reliance," said Pittaway, "and the medium is food."
The need is great. One in five Missoula residents lives at or below the poverty line. Eleven percent of adults in the community worry their households will run out of food. And only 22 percent of county residents eat a high-quality diet of five servings of produce a day.
Because GCH collaborates with twenty-five community groups, UM students found themselves working side by side with retirees, Russian immigrants, welfare recipients, AmeriCorps volunteers, Girl Scouts, group home youths, nonviolent offenders and the mentally ill.
Slotnick knows of no other organic agriculture education program that has students working with community members. "There are no social barriers when you weed across from each other," he said. "You learn people's life stories in two hours of weeding that you would never hear in more than two years of working across the hall from each other."
This unique opportunity has not been lost on the students. "I feel much more involved in the community," said Smith. "In fact, it has sparked my interest in the community."
PEAS is not only a great opportunity for students, said Slicer, but faculty members from artists to scientists have been eager to participate as well. "PEAS weaves small-scale agriculture into a liberal arts curriculum," explained Tom DeLuca, an assistant professor of forestry and a PEAS board member, who is planning to compost food scraps from the campus dining service and tranform them into fertile soil at the farm. "There is science involved in this, but it is not a science-based agriculture program. The students understand what they don't know. They know enough to recognize when the plants are suffering and to not just dogmatically put on a soil amendment."
"The students are tremendously energized and excited by this course," said environmental studies Professor Bill Chaloupka. There are many ways to teach, he observed, and for some, this hands-on learning approach is best. "It is also good to have the University crossing Arthur Avenue and entering into collaboration with people in the community."
"We're not trying to train farmers," emphasized Mark Lusk, director of international programs. "We're trying to train well educated liberal arts students. Whether they go into law or medicine, they will have an appreciation for the roots of modern society, which was an agricultural society."
Urban gardens are the lungs of the city. They provide crops, a quiet, park-like retreat, and a base for building community. "Urban agriculture is being rediscovered in a post-industrial era," said Lusk, who established an urban garden program for the street children of Bolivia. "While community is something Missoula takes for granted, in other parts of the country, crime and urban decay have fractured communities. Nationally there is a recognition that community gardening is a trend for rebuilding community when it is impaired and maintaining it where it's intact."
Through PEAS, GCH and community gardens, Missoula is rediscovering its roots. It was once known regionally as the Garden City. Until the early 1970s, nearly 90 percent of Missoula's produce was locally grown in individual plots and huge truck gardens that have vanished, such as Hughes Gardens in Hellgate Canyon. Now 90 percent of the produce comes in from out of state.
Most importantly, community gardens are vital because there are few safety nets left for the poor, said sociology Professor Paul Miller, whose research on poverty and work with the Hunger Coalition spurred the health department's interest in GCH and PEAS. Community gardens can also help heal neighborhoods, he observed, because "all human problems come to the garden." M Marga Lincoln is a freelance writer who frequently writes for The Bitterroot Star.
Marga Lincoln is a freelance writer who frequently writes for The Bitterroot Star.