Veggie Trailers and Dunk Tanks: Budding Campus Gardens and the Kitchens They Supply

July Homegrown Profile
by Katie Halloran, Montana Local Food Specialist

School is out for the summer, and it’s the quiet season on most college campuses around the state. However, a few Montana colleges are abuzz with activity all summer as they plant, grow, and harvest fresh food for their student bodies. At Kalispell’s campus farm at Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC) and Dillon’s community garden at the University of Montana Western, you’ll find people hard at work through June, July, and August so students will get the freshest food their school can offer when they return.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

University of Montana Western Campus and Community Garden:

The University of Montana Western garden was established in 2009 out of a desire to utilize the vegetable waste coming out of the cafeteria. Since its humble beginnings as a plot of land used for an exercise trail, the garden now boasts an “upcycled” greenhouse, a hoop house, a native plant pollinator bed, a makeshift duck pond, and compost bins made out of old dunk tanks.

UMW Campus Garden

UMW Campus Garden with Linda Lyon, Jim Roscoe, and Louise Bruce

The campus garden, located on a beautiful, windy hillside behind campus, serves not only as somewhere to grow food for the cafeteria, but also as a gathering place for community members, students, and classes. During my recent visit to the garden, Linda Lyon, a faculty member and the garden coordinator, laughed as she exclaimed, “If we can do it here, you can do it anywhere!”

The garden space is available to community members as well as students and staff. Gardeners use the plots, water, and compost as well as swap advice with each other and Jim Roscoe, the assistant garden coordinator. The garden is a testament to what can be done over time through creativity and resourcefulness. The greenhouse is set on old tires and is comprised of such materials as discarded bricks from town, windows from the old courthouse, a darkroom fan, and donated wood. This spring, the university added a hoop house to grow melons, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Last year, the garden saw the addition of a drip irrigation system. The mission of the garden is to stay in touch with campus, to augment food for the community, to offer educational workshops, and to provide green space. The garden already serves as an outdoor classroom for professors teaching a lesson on such topics as ecology or soils, and Lyon hopes that continues to grow. Stage one is complete, with a functioning campus and community garden, but Lyon has hopes for stage two. “We would like to offer an outdoor living classroom with food for wildlife, apple trees, currents, and shrubs.”

Flathead Valley Community College Campus

FVCC Veggie Stand

FVCC Veggie Stand

Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC) has five acres designated for its working campus farm, with one acre in production this season. The farm is also an educational facility, part of the newly formed Integrated Agriculture and Food Systems Program. Under the direction of Professor Heather Estrada, students in this program take classes on the farm. The farm is managed by Julian Cunningham, who brings a wealth of experience in small-scale production as well the ability to teach those skills to others. The produce from the garden is currently being distributed through a small campus Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Estrada emphasizes that the farm wants to keep the CSA around 30 shares right now, so as not to compete with growers in the community. Members of the CSA can look forward to such products as bok choy, lettuce, radishes, spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower.

Students and faculty who are not members of the CSA can still get some of the garden goods via the weekly veggie stand. The stand started three years ago as a “Veggie Trailer” hooked to the back of Estrada’s car. This summer’s veggie stand will kick off in July to offer a variety of produce and will operate through September so that students returning to campus in the fall can benefit from the garden selection as well. When asked why she enjoys this type of work, Estrada noted how it has enhanced the student community’s interest in local food. “Having the farm raises awareness at the college about this type of community-supported agriculture.”

Campus Dining Goes Local

The University of Montana Western Dining Services

UMW Dining Poster

Poster in the UMW Dining Hall

Not only is UM Western growing local food, it is also purchasing it. So local, in fact, a dining services inventory bill from the honey producer may simply read “send a check to Earl,” which is something Louise Bruce, Farm to College Coordinator and UM Western Culinary Services Supervisor, is happy to do. Bruce works to get local products into the cafeteria, whether it’s through her mainline distributor, Sysco, or by partnering with Quality Food Distributing out of Bozeman, which just started delivering to Dillon. “We hope to keep the route going,” Bruce said, explaining that there must be sufficient volume ordered to make the trek worth it for independent distributors. Bruce is constantly searching, asking herself is there a local alternative that I can get in a manner that is reliable and affordable? Bruce works with Sysco’s “local food point person” to select product options produced in Montana or nearby states. She also works directly with honey and beef producers based in Dillon. She said that one advantage to being a small campus is that it is easy to get the goods from the campus garden into the cafeteria, and she can pay attention to what students like. “You can get to know your clients,” she noted. She knows the people working on the garden and can see the daily operations, which makes her confident in bringing goods produced there into the cafeteria. The cooks are invited to go up to the garden anytime, and many of them come from a farming or ranching background. “They have experience with growing their own food, they can trade seeds, and they are still familiar with where their food comes from.”

The Eagle’s Nest Café

Through the support of the FVCC Campus Wellness Committee, various players were able to get together to find the best way to get the campus farm produce into the school’s Eagle’s Nest Café. The FVCC Wellness Committee, (which is supported by the Montana University System Wellness Program), secured funds through a grant for the café to buy seasonal ingredients from the campus farm to be featured in a weekly meal. The Wellness Committee is planning to hire a student intern for the upcoming year to do nutritional information research for and create a poster-board each week about the featured meal. Additionally, the café will post a recipe from the meal so Estrada can add it to her blog about the farm stand. As an added perk, students who partake in the featured meal at the café will receive a coupon for a free item at the veggie stand.

FVCC Veggie Trailer

Heather Estrada in the Veggie Trailer at FVCC

Another noteworthy partnership has been established with the college’s Culinary Arts Program. The farm was able to grow spinach to be served at an event put on by the Culinary Arts Program this past April, and Estrada is hoping that partnership will continue to grow: “The institutional buyer is who we are after as a program, so this partnership makes sense. People want to know that we are consistent.” To establish that consistency and credibility, Estrada suggests starting with growing something you are comfortable with and can provide in large quantities. When it was time to order seeds, Estrada sat down with organizers from the Culinary Arts program to plan ahead for the April dinner. The dinner was themed after the movie “Casablanca” and featured spinach and cilantro from the campus greenhouse.

Estrada said their work at FVCC is just starting, and it is also really exciting. “It is really rewarding when you step back and look at how things are taking shape.”

The value of these school’s efforts cannot be overstated. A few larger universities in the state are at the point where they are spending up to 23% of their food budget on local products; both the University of Montana and Montana State University spend around $1 million each year on products that are grown and/or processed, manufactured, and distributed in Montana. While such numbers take a sustained effort over many years to achieve, FVCC and UMW are showing that it is possible to start participating in a local food system right where you are with the tools that you have.