UNL students helping educate others about agriculture

Story and videos by Demetria Stephens, NewsNetNebraska

Nebraska’s economy runs on agriculture, yet many of the state’s city kids often don’t know much about how food is grown.

Zach Morrissey, a junior agronomy major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was one of the lucky ones. He attended Lincoln schools but had the opportunity to learn about agriculture on his family’s farm, just outside of town.

In an after-school nature club run by the UNL Garden Gang, Morrissey talks with children at Randolph Elementary School about farming. And he’s one of several UNL students working to start a student-run farm at UNL’s East Campus.

So eventually, both young kids and young adults will be able learn more about farming practices and agriculture the best way possible — by actually getting their hands dirty and growing plants.

student farm map

Source: Google Maps


The UNL Garden Gang started nature clubs at Randolph, Saratoga and Norris elementary schools in the spring of 2010 with nine students, and now there are about 21. The Garden Gang started as a senior thesis project for advisees of Sara Cooper, an environmental studies program coordinator at UNL. The thesis project is a requirement for undergraduates in the School of Natural Resources.

When the original students graduated, other students were interested in taking over, so the Garden Gang now has become a volunteer outlet for students in UNL’s Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication program. Members create lessons on topics such as bees, snakes, clouds and what should be planted in the school garden.

Video: School garden program blooms in Lincoln


The group’s goal is to get schools started with the clubs, then have the parents and teachers take over, Cooper said. That’s what happened at Norris, which started with four raised beds on a hill and expanded to eight, right near the playground.

Norris teacher Darcie Kvasnicka said her third graders like that it is accessible.

“They love checking out the growth every day,” she said. “Sometimes it’s such a difference just like a day makes, even from the morning to the afternoon.”

One or two of her students might be familiar with gardening already, but they got so involved in activities like harvesting potatoes on hot fall days that they had to take turns digging, she said.

“It’s not anything that’s required, but they all want to take a hand in it.”

Another enthusiastic supporter is Bob Brandt, principal at Norris Elementary School, who has a picture of the school’s garden on his wall and this quote: “Caring for each, learning for all, growing together.” He noted that the school used grants and help from parents during the summer and now have a small greenhouse to start plants.

“One good idea kind of spawns another one,” he said.

Despite the success of the garden in Norris, there isn’t an organized effort to start K-12 school gardens in Nebraska, said Bailey Mahlberg, Nebraska Farm to School coordinator. Norris is one of four Nebraska participants in the Farm to School program, which tries to help farmers sell direct to schools.

Although Nebraska is lagging behind other states in its number of participating schools in the Nebraska Farm to School program, Mahlberg thinks it is making progress. Its first Farm to School Summit, held in early April in Kearney, drew more than 30 attendees and started a dialogue between more farmers and food service directors.

Campus student-run farm

The proposed student-run farm on East Campus would join about 60 similar farms at colleges and universities across the U.S. The goal is for students to grow their own food. The UNL students want to compost their food scraps, learn about growing things small-scale and market the harvests to the dining halls on campus and grocery stores around Lincoln.

A student farm at UNL was the brainchild of agronomy and horticulture professor Chuck Francis, who thought of it 20 years ago. Francis said he remembered seeing some unused land while jogging at noon one day. He wrote a couple grants to get funding, but none were successful.

Today, the farm is gaining support because there are “super energetic students,” Francis said.

Morrissey says the farm would be a great educational tool for ag students.

“You can talk about them in the lab all you want, but to really get people to learn, you have to get them to hold it in there hands,” he said. “You have to go out there and pull weeds and harvest the broccoli and harvest the peas.”

The first meeting of the student-run farm group, on March 26, drew 30 people, the majority of whom are environmental studies majors.

Video: Organizers discuss plans for student-run farm


Francis said he’s trying not to step in except administratively. The agronomy and horticulture departments donated the land, and Francis said they received wide support from the sustainable and organic agriculture community.

Neil Tabor, a senior environmental studies major, said the group needed Francis’ help, but appreciated that he gave them planning power.

“He’s still definitely involved and definitely someone we need along the way and it’s very important to have him,” he said. “He kind of spawned the idea to us.”

Tabor and UNL graduates Jenn Simmons and Danny Martin were Francis’ students last spring and leaders of the group by default. They visited other student-run farms at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Minnesota and Iowa State University, some of which run on student fees. The UNL student farm might ask for student fees, but it should become self-sufficient, Martin said.

“We think this is definitely something the whole university can be part of,” he said.

The farm received $3,350 through Indiegogo, a crowd-sourcing website. The biggest donor was a man from Missouri who gave $1,000. Several of the students in the group donated, too.

One of challenges the group faces now is replacing the leaders, although they don’t plan to become an Recognized Student Organization at this time. Martin and Simmons have internships at Robinette Farms and Tabor is set to graduate in the summer.

During a recent leadership meeting, Tabor said he saw a few people starting to step up with planning.

Francis, meanwhile, acknowledges the efforts of the current leaders.

“They may not see the fruits,” he said, “but they’re planting the trees.”

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