Release date: April 23, 2004

Middlebury, Vt.-Students at Middlebury College are getting ready for the second season of their organic garden. Last summer, senior Jean Hamilton and a group of her fellow students enhanced campus life by growing organic vegetables on a three-acre produce garden that they established in a field within walking distance of the western edge campus. The garden project uses College land for community-building where students, faculty, staff and local residents come together for a common purpose. The student gardeners celebrated the end of a successful 2003 growing season last September with a harvest festival and all-day organic feast for the whole community. The cold winter months did not slow the gardeners’ efforts. They worked to acquire funds for the garden, developed a research project, networked with others interested in organic gardening and prepared for the coming spring season.

Hamilton, from Silver Spring, Md., first cultivated an interest in non-chemical approaches to gardening while working on an organic farm in Seattle before enrolling at Middlebury in the spring of 2000. After matriculating, she attended the 2001 Northeast Organic Farming Association annual meeting at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. At the conference, she ran into Erwin Konesni of Appleton, Maine, another Middlebury senior, and together the two decided to start an organic garden at Middlebury.

Majoring in environmental studies, Hamilton considers agriculture an environmental issue of ever-growing importance. “Through gardening, students can learn of the importance of natural resources, the preservation of land, and the effects that industrialization has on the environment,” she said. Members of every part of the College community responded enthusiastically to the organic garden. Compost and many of the supplies for the garden and its sod-roofed tool shed were donated by the College’s dining services and facility management department, while guidance and encouragement came from faculty members.

According to author John Elder, Middlebury College professor of English and environmental studies, the organic garden is a natural outgrowth of environmental studies, an interdisciplinary major at Middlebury where students across the academic spectrum can relate to issues at a personal level. Elder attributes the success of the garden to the students’ vision and drive. “The garden group is incredibly persistent and I admire what the students have done,” he said.

Renowned environmentalist and author Bill McKibben also applauds the students’ efforts. “The garden, even after just a year, emerged as one of the special spots on the Middlebury campus. Students, with hard work and a special kind of affection, have turned it into an incredible oasis-and one of the College’s real educational centers as well,” said McKibben, who is a Middlebury College scholar-in-residence in environmental studies. “It’s been a pleasure to see the kind of energy and good spirit that inhabits that knoll,” he added.

Hamilton believes that one of the greatest aspects of the organic garden is its ability to draw the local community together. Middlebury’s farming community, businesses and volunteers provided essential time, services and donated materials such as bees and seed potatoes.

Since last fall’s harvest, the students have been able to hire a year-round gardening advisor. In collaboration with a team of Vermont farmers, the students also started a seed-saving research project for mustard crops resistant to flea beetles. In November, Hamilton and Konesni attended the “Restoring Our Seed” conference in Brattleboro, Vt., and also spoke about student activism regarding environmental initiatives at Yale University’s sustainable food project conference “Tilling the Soil, Turning the Tables: Regional Forum on Sustainable College Dining.”

The student garden has also connected to other environmentally driven projects on campus. Philip Aroneanu, a Middlebury sophomore from Ridgewood, N.J., was recently granted a Campus Ecology Fellowship from the National Wildlife Federation. Aroneanu is working on a composting system involving red wiggler worms, which he will nourish with food waste from the College’s dining halls. The resulting nutrient-rich worm castings will be tilled into the soil of the College’s gardens, strengthening the soil for salad greens.

“We often spend a lot of time learning theories, but not enough time out there in the world working in the field,” said Hamilton. “Gardening, on the other hand, is an easy and tangible way of connecting to the earth.” With winter at its close, Hamilton admits to being “itchy for spring planting,” and chili peppers are on her mind. She will begin planting them soon in the greenhouse atop Bicentennial Hall.