Local community benefitting from microfarm project
As a forestry major, Kyle Dues found a perfect fit at Ohio State Mansfield.
“This campus is set on a 640-acre wooded lot,” he says. “What better place is there for a forestry major to go to school but a 640-acre wooded lot?”
Once on campus, Dues discovered more reasons to be engaged with the Mansfield campus. He connected with faculty member Kent “Kip” Curtis, an associate professor of environmental history, who was piloting a microfarm project on campus. Dues started interning at the microfarm and later became its interim coordinator.
What Dues didn’t know at the time is that the microfarm, which has an over-arching goal of creating a model for urban agriculture that built and aggregated the produce from additional microfarms, was on the verge of a breakthrough.
Curtis entered it into the Alliance for the American Dream competition which challenges colleges around the country to come up with projects that can help strengthen the middle class. The microfarm project (deemed the Ohio Microfarm Project in the competition) was one of Ohio State’s three finalists.
While the project did not take the top prize, it did gain support through the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) with a matching grant to Mansfield to launch a $2 million dollar urban sustainable food system project that will increase access to fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops while supporting the local economy.
In addition to promising potential benefits for the community of which the Mansfield campus is a part, the project offers students like Dues opportunities for growth academically and otherwise, Curtis said.
“They’re able to see the project go from blueprint to on the ground,” he said. “The sorts of things they’re having to do extend well beyond the urban agriculture project. It creates a whole set of executive skills. You need to tend to the plants. You need to think about the future. It’s a little bit of a different experience than you have on a smartphone or in the classroom. It requires intelligent, cognitive engagements, development of their thinking skills, and it impacts other areas of their life.”
Dues, who works multiple hours a week on the microfarm, could barely contain his enthusiasm as he discussed the project. “Probably one of the coolest aspects for this entire project is that phrase over and over ‘keeping local dollars local.’ If that could stay just a fraction in this community, it would be incredible,” he said.
The positive effects of such microfarms, which focus on the growing of specialty crops such as kale, baby greens, cauliflower and cilantro, stretch beyond the monetary, he said, adding that overuse to meet nationwide demand is degrading soil in California.
“If we can cut down on the environmental impact in California and keep local dollars local in a sustainable way, the future just opens up at that point because of how much of a social impact that could have if we can provide local money and protect the environment.”
Curtis touted the importance of involving a range of community organizations in the microfarm project. He also plans to apply for a grant of approximately $2 million to expedite a low-risk startup environment and train 15 to 30 microfarmers.
“Our goal has been to kind of present a concept and then facilitate community conversation and get a broad coalition of partners,” he said.
Dues would like as many students as possible to participate in the project.
“These are the kinds of things if you don’t know what you want to do, it is a free opportunity to look at something and see if you want to do it as a career,” Dues said. “I have 10 opportunities in Ecolab. I can look at forestry. I can look at wildlife. I can look at business marketing. I can look at social media. I can say, ‘Hey, do I like this as a career?’”