The project is an outgrowth of the URI Food Agriculture Program, which conducts research and “variety trials” on an assortment of vegetable plants to support local commercial growers. The bulk of the harvest goes to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, but Chef Jeff Marino in URI Dining Services expressed interest in obtaining produce grown on campus for student meals.
“We started out selling them tomatoes, squash and potatoes a year ago, and last spring we asked Chef Jeff what he would like us to grow for him this year,” explained Rebecca Brown, URI assistant professor of plant sciences and coordinator of the project. “He said he wanted basil. So we conducted a basil variety trial, which he used over the summer to make pesto for the dining halls. We’re also selling him cherry and grape tomatoes, sauce tomatoes and slicing tomatoes.”
Last year, students in Brown’s classes on vegetable crops grew and sold produce to the dining halls valued at about $1,000, and already this year they have surpassed that figure with still a long harvest season remaining. Brown said that she hopes to produce salad greens for the campus throughout the winter months in newly installed “high tunnels” – unheated greenhouses that provide protection from the weather and allow plants to be grown directly in the ground.
“We’re trying to bring in more local fresh foods to the dining halls, because students are asking for it and it tastes so much better,” said Marino. “And you can’t get any more local than growing food on campus. It brings us back to the roots of URI as an agricultural college.”
Marino said that next year he is considering offering a Farm-to-Fork menu made up entirely of foods grown on the URI campus.
Noah LeClaire-Conway, a URI senior from Narragansett, is in his third year of growing vegetables at the University’s agronomy fields. “I’ve always been interested in agriculture, and when I came back to school I decided I wanted a career where I knew I’d be able to feed my family,” he said. “It’s backbreaking work, but it’s also a lot of fun. And it saves a trip to the store, because at the end of the day I can bring home some food. We eat really well.”
Other students who participated in the project this summer are Emily Cotter, Jacqueline Iaccabo and Elena Krajenski, all of South Kingstown, Hannah Sherman of Charlestown, and graduate students Mina Vescera of Providence and Jeff Peiper of Colorado.
Food production is one of the few growth industries in Rhode Island, according to Brown. There was a 47 percent increase in the number of farms in the state from 2002 to 2007, the last year numbers are available.
“Situated between New York and Boston, we’re in a perfect location for the new agriculture – locally grown perishable foods,” said Brown.
The URI professor said that she hopes this project will eventually grow into “a true student farm” as part of the University’s effort to develop a new undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture. “There’s a lot of student interest already,” she said.
URI senior Noah Leclaire-Conway harvests cherry tomatoes that will be consumed by students in the University’s dining halls.