BRUNSWICK, Maine — When the topic of locavorism comes up at Bowdoin College, junior Katherine Kirk speaks from experience.

This summer, when many college students were lolling on the beach, baby-sitting or interning in an office, Kirk was rising with the sun to add fish emulsion into the soil around rows of corn and kale. She wasn’t deep in the country, but right on campus tending to the school’s organic garden.

“As important as it is to study and read, you are at a disadvantage if you don’t pair it with experience,” said Kirk, 21.

As a paid intern learning to tend to the two vegetable plots on campus, the government major learned the basics of organic farming and other unexpected pleasures — such as how good red peppers taste when grown naturally and sustainably.

“You realize you were eating cardboard before,” said Kirk, who co-heads the school’s organic garden club.

Why is this intellectual institution, whose alumnus include a past president and famous poets, focused on soil health, nutrition and farming? Since the first school garden was planted in 2004, faculty and staff realized education begins with the ground under your feet.

“It opens up the mind,” said garden supervisor Jeremy Tardif, who was harvesting sungold tomatoes on a recent sunny afternoon.

Though the University of Maine graduate said working in a garden doesn’t fit the classic liberal arts model, he treats students like hard-working employees while teaching them the tenets of organic agriculture to instill a better understanding of where food comes from.

“This is real world experience that is very valid,” Tardif said. “No matter what their major is, they all have to eat, right?”

Smart, healthy cuisine is part of Bowdoin’s luster. About 35 percent of food purchased for the campus dining halls is locally grown or processed. Its own garden contributes about 3 percent.

The idea of a college farm is not unique to Bowdoin. Yale University started one in 2003 on the suggestion of restaurateur Alice Waters, whose daughter was studying there. Colby College in Waterville has an active organic and gardener’s club with a greenhouse.

On the Brunswick campus, the link to education is very visible. Students walk by the garden on their way to class. And when they enter the dining hall, signs indicate which vegetables were grown a few yards away. That connection, campus to counter, has changed the way they eat.

“Five years ago, students went to the hot food line first,” said Mary Kennedy, Bowdoin’s director of dining services.

That scenario changed when kale and pecorino salad with pumpkin seeds and kale and sweet potato soup, made with student-grown veggies, arrived.

“They rush over to the salads bar and say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this this, looks wonderful.’ More and more they make a beeline for the salad bar,” said Kennedy, who orchestrates a locavore dinner three times per year and oversees the garden. “It’s a way for us to showcase the produce that’s available in Maine. A lot of it is just helping students understand and see what is local.”

The garden’s co-founder, Bowdoin grad Tristan Noyes, planted on Crystal Springs Farm on the Bowdoin Topsham Land Trust a few miles from campus 12 years ago.

“We wanted students to feel more connected to the their food. We wanted to promote healthy living,” he said.

Now that two gardens bloom on campus, that goals is being reached. The main plot, on newly acquired land, behind a dorm and a path to the athletic fields, bursts with flowers, bees, butterflies and vitality.

Stopping by to talk to Kirk between classes, garden club member Heidy Morales gushed.

“Oh my God I love it,” said the senior, who planted garlic here, steps from her dorm room.“It’s one of the reasons I chose to live here.”

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.