Unity’s gardens growing greener, closer to home

Posted Sept. 09, 2008, at 8:07 p.m.

UNITY, Maine — When students at Unity College sit down to a school-provided meal, they can be assured that an entire system of management is in place to provide meals created mostly from local ingredients.

They also can take a sustainable agriculture course, work on the college farm or take a shift volunteering in the college’s community garden.

Just decades after agriculture nearly disappeared from many college campuses, it is taking center stage at Unity College.

Not only are administrators buying from a dozen local farms and a Maine cooperative, they are constructing their own farm for future use as a food source and a teaching tool, installing sustainable agriculture courses and even proposing a children’s zoo.

“As a leader in sustainable and local food education, it’s obviously important for Unity College to put our institutional money where our collective mouth is, literally,” said John Zavodney, associate professor and chair of the instruction and advising services department.

Because Unity was founded in 1965 by area residents, it is fitting that the college places a strong priority on buying local, President Mitchell Thomashow said.

“Not only is buying local the right thing to do from a community relations standpoint, but it is a core value of the what we are trying to accomplish from a sustainability standpoint,” Thomashow said. “When you truck in food 1,000 miles you have not only added to the cost but also contributed to global warming with the emissions required for that transportation. We may never reach 100 percent local food production in our dining services, but we will do our best.”

At 750 meals a day — 200 breakfasts, 300 lunches and 250 dinners — area produce, grains, fruits, dairy and even ice cream take center stage, part of the trend at colleges to move away from corporate, cookie-cutter dining services and tailor programs to local supplies.

“I am very committed to building our contacts with local farms,” said Pamela Stone of Unity’s dining service. “Just a sample of the many local products we have been buying are all our slicing and grape tomatoes from a Unity organic farm, as well as their basil, cucumbers, green beans, Spanish onions, sweet corn and green peppers. Now, later in the season, we will be buying their potatoes, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots and beets.”

Stone said the college buys other items, such as green peppers, winter squash, russet potatoes, whole-wheat bread flour, honey, cheddar cheese and dry beans from the Crown ’O Maine Cooperative. All the products are organic and all are certified.

“We have dealt with a number of local apple farms,” she said, for apples, pears and plums.

“Our garden here at the college supplied greens for the lobster feed and the incoming students’ weekend,” she said.

“We buy granola from Frye Mountain, just down the road a piece on the way to Belfast, and organic granola from Grandy Oats of Brownfield. We also only buy Oakhurst dairy products — hormone-free and made in Maine. Our ice cream is from Giffords in Skowhegan, which uses milk and cream from only Maine producers.”

The college buys all its frozen potato products from McCain Foods Ltd., grown and processed at Easton; and its wild blueberries, raspberries and cranberries from Jasper Wyman & Son in Milbridge. “We think that’s a really impressive list and hope it grows as time goes by,” Stone said.

Zavodney had high praise for Sara Trunzo, Unity’s summer gardener and farm manager. “Sara has done an amazing job this summer to create a summer garden program that is a real legacy for Unity College,” he said. “Sara graduated in May and spent the summer making the college gardens into a real legacy for the college. Under Sara’s leadership the garden produced thousands of dollars’ worth of produce for college food services, ran a successful children’s day camp centered on organic gardening and local food called RootsCamp, logged hundreds of volunteer hours, made space available for community gardeners, and delivered hundreds of pounds of fresh produce for the local food bank.”

That commitment to local food didn’t wane when fall semester students arrived.

“It’s not that difficult to find the sources,” said Sandra Donahue, director of Unity’s dining service. “We use our own farm here as much as possible. We look at the carbon footprint and also use farms that are nearby or that have someone at the farm already coming here, either a worker or student.”

Donahue said buying local is both a workable and affordable system. “They contact us and deliver to us,” she said. “We have a great partnership with some reliable small farms, and the cost seems to be within a reasonable range.”

She said the biggest hurdle seems to be keeping track of orders when dealing with so many farms.

The bounty of the local food emphasis is spilling over into the classroom, Zavodney said, with two new sustainable agriculture degree programs.

“The new programs, our long-standing relationship with Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, a brand-new Center for Sustainability and Global Change, and our location within the farming heritage of central Maine really help to position Unity College for national leadership in sustainable and local food education,” he said.

As part of the local emphasis, staff members and students are doing construction at MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair site, as well as working with Waterville Main Street to develop a Waterville cooperative program. Zavodney said the Unity students in the sustainable agriculture courses would be able to support these programs with ongoing product and service development.

“Unity puts a lot of effort into making our academic programs as real as possible, but we warn students that real-world learning experiences are always more complex,” Zavodney said. “You might be shoveling out a barn or wrestling with a spreadsheet — either way, things get messy.”

There is also a plan under way to create a children’s zoo at Unity’s Tinker Farm, “a natural next step building off the successes of our popular Captive Wildlife Care and education major degree program, our student-led FFA program, and RootsCamp …,” Zavodney said.

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