Students returning to campus at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville will have a fitting alternative to the usual fast-food destinations. Their classmates in the organic crop production program are serving up a fresh market with food and entertainment planned through mid-October.
Students can shop the UT Market without having to cook. Market manager Mary Rogers explains, "I'm hoping they'll buy things that you don't necessarily need to prepare, like some of the fruits, and things that the vendors are selling. They sell soaps and cheeses and baked goods."
Last season, student interns tried selling some produce they'd grown at the UT Organic Farm. Other students sold ornamental plants. They chose the UT Trial Gardens along Neyland Drive as the venue. This year, the market has expanded to include select vendors from throughout the East Tennessee community. A local dairy is serving ice cream. Free live music fills the air. Rogers says this summer's customer base has been a lot of campus faculty and staff. She hopes the customer base can expand to students this August. "We're gonna start advertising for the student paper and we're gonna have some kind of incentives or student discounts. We're gonna give away some tote bags on that first day just to get people here to they know that we're here."
My daughters helped me choose some organic, heirloom tomatoes to purchase from the student interns' produce stand. The students were also giving away flowers. From hand-dug potatoes to hot peppers, the produce had been harvested on the same day as the Wednesday afternoon market. The heirloom varieties of eggplants looked especially wonderful, ranging from the typical deep purple to a variety with light lavender and white tones.
When I was visiting the Organic Farm in early spring with Vegetable Specialist Annette Wszelaki who oversees the research program, the student interns were starting with their educational component. They took an introductory class about sustainable agriculture before helping to plan their own market garden. The farm runs with a mix of student intern and paid labor. Not everyone is an agriculture major.
Organic Crops Research Assoc.
Rogers is an Organic Crops Research Associate and helps to organize the undergraduates, "We have a few people in plant sciences. We also have people in soil science, food science, ag econ, sociology and anthropology. I like that students from other disciplines are kind of going this way too. Because they all have their area of interest in sustainable ag, which is a pretty complex kind of discipline in and of itself."
Profits from the student market stand go back into buying next season's seeds and paying for student labor. After two years of support from federal stimulus funds, the UT Market and related intern program will likely be even more streamlined next year. This growing season has involved about 10 university students.
Rogers is hopeful that beyond vegetable sales, the market will boost awareness about the organic program. "I'm hoping that maybe we can boost our class enrollment and interest in our program and the farm in general."