Educational and Community Empowerment at UGArden

Mar 29, 2018

Sunlight fills greenhouses and illumes a flatbed truck hauling sylvan debris on a crisp February morning in Athens. Just an hour after sunrise, volunteers comb through crop fields and pick ripe bell peppers, leafy collards and purple-veined kale at UGArden—a community-based farm managed by University of Georgia (UGA) students and faculty situated near the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Morning harvesting is only one of many endeavors of UGArden: since its formation in 2010, the farm has become a locus for experiential academic learning and also distributes low-priced produce to families across Athens-Clarke County.

When a UGArden volunteer harvests collards from the farm, the vegetable could end up in various locations across the county. Clarke Middle School is one beneficiary of UGArden’s crop cultivation: through UGArden’s “Grow It, Know It” initiative, Clarke Middle School teachers and students create a three-course dinner using produce harvested from UGArden’s satellite garden—a four-plot garden at the middle school established by UGArden volunteers in 2012. Clarke Middle School teachers are also working with UGArden volunteers to incorporate gardening into their academic curriculums—gardening can help students get a better grasp on subjects like biology and the agricultural history of Georgia.

UGArden crops are also sold weekly at three community produce stands: Clarke Middle School, Athens Community Council on Aging, and Hilsman Middle School. UGAden volunteers sell produce to Athens residents—and even offer half-price produce for community members eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP). UGArden also donates portions of their produce to UGA student hunger relief organizations Campus Kitchen and the UGA Food Pantry. Selling inexpensive vegetables and donating produce to local charities displays UGArden’s commitment to not only benefit its surrounding community, but also combat hunger throughout Athens-Clarke County.

Academic instruction is another significant component of UGArden: five agricultural courses are taught at the farm, and undergraduate students can partake in a semesterly for-credit internship focused on cultivating crops and developing an accompanying research project. One course, taught near the farm’s storehouse, teaches students how to construct a fully-functional tiny house from square one. Students also conduct agricultural research at UGArden and have developed independent projects ranging from streamlining compost management to breeding disease-resistant zucchini.

One of the most prominent ongoing research projects at UGArden is the farm’s medicinal herb garden, which was founded six years ago and has enabled UGArden to cultivate and sell tea throughout Athens. “To me it’s about empowerment” says UGArden Herb Program Manager Noelle Fuller. “It’s been a really rewarding experience to work with students and people in the community and see the empowerment that comes with learning how to use these herbs to benefit their health.” Master gardeners like Fuller plant herbs and dry the leaves inside UGArden greenhouses. After drying leaves fully, UGArden volunteers mix tea leaves and herbs to form blends such as UGArden’s Feel Better Tea: a mixture of Lemon Verbena, Hibiscus, Mint, and Thyme that helps reduce cold and flu symptoms. UGArden tea

blends, as well as their healing salves and oils, are available at their weekly produce stands and at Market at Tate on UGA’s campus. Eight years ago, university administrators were hesitant to approve a student-run garden near UGA’s campus. However, UGArden has exceeded the university’s expectations. The garden benefits UGA students who are eager to develop independent agricultural research projects and also provides a space for UGA professors to teach experiential agricultural courses. From establishing garden plots at nearby middle schools to donating crops to local hunger-fighting programs, UGArden has displayed a steadfast dedication to serving community members across Athens-Clarke County