Urban farm acts as a tool for growth

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As students file back onto campus this week, classrooms, cafes and Memorial Glade will not be the only places ablaze with student energy — the Student Organic Gardening Association is preparing for a busy semester of hands-on learning and sustainable agriculture. This time last semester, I entered the Student Organic Garden for the first time for a harvest workday. Ellie Lum, the head of the Student Organic Gardening Association at the time, welcomed my help and questions with passion and enthusiasm, and as we bundled bunches of vivid rainbow chard, I learned about how I could engage with the garden throughout the year. Since then, I have been involved with SOGA as an active member.

In 1971, a group of students founded the Student Organic Garden. Located on the corner of Walnut and Virginia streets, it has since functioned as a student-run farm and learning lab. Members of SOGA collectively make decisions about how to run garden programs, manage the garden beds, improve infrastructure and use grants. For years, weekend open hours have brought community members in to chat, help with workdays and take home free produce. The garden belongs to the students and greater community.

Through my work at SOGA, I’ve fostered relationships with teachers, other students and gardeners as well as with the land. Over the course of just one semester, I was a part of the important ways SOGA engages with the neighborhood and offers an open space for all to come learn, chat and relax. SOGA has helped me cultivate leadership skills and given me the opportunity to work on grant proposals, and I have gotten to spend hours outside gardening with wonderful people.

My involvement in the garden last semester was transformative. I realized I have the ability to grow things on my own and become more self-sufficient, even in an urban area. I was inspired right away and acquired a few planters and seedlings for my small Berkeley balcony. Eating salad greens and herbs I personally cultivate (after battling some squirrels) is incredibly rewarding — and delicious! It is empowering to reduce my reliance on grocery stores and vegetables that have traveled hundreds of miles before reaching my dinner plate. Besides inspiring me to garden at home, my involvement has taught me specific horticulture skills, such as grafting fruit tree cuttings, making vertical beds out of recycled pallets and growing winter greens. The garden’s impact is unique because I couldn’t have learned this in a lecture. Furthermore, the Student Organic Garden is a place where I am able to escape from the generally concrete and lecture hall-filled routine of a typical Berkeley day. The refreshing feeling of working in a garden is the perfect medicine for a college student’s stress.

As January settles in, you may find yourself looking for a way to fulfill those New Year’s resolutions of getting involved in your community, spending more time outside, becoming a part of the food movement or learning something new. As a Cal student or member of the greater community, the garden is your space to use and enjoy. It’s an important campus space that brings people together to help maintain this historically fertile ground. If you are new to gardening, you can take one of our student-run DeCal courses or attend weekend events. However you decide to participate, the garden is a democratically run space open to all levels of experience and degrees of commitment.

As an active member of Cal’s sustainability circles, I see this as a pivotal semester to be involved at SOGA. Cal’s sustainable farming education community is expanding in exciting ways. The College of Natural Resources recently partnered with other schools on campus to form the Berkeley Food Institute. As a research center that fosters connections between policy work, education, practice and social movements, the BFI is an exciting addition to Cal and possible partner for SOGA. A BFI-sponsored event in the Student Organic Garden is in the works this spring. And not only does SOGA focus on sustainable agriculture through its own programming, but it also forms a part of the larger fabric of the campus’ sustainable food movement. Other student groups, such as the Berkeley Student Food Collective and the Student Environmental Resource Center, have similar goals related to education and empowering student leaders.

Some recent exciting events at SOGA have paved the way for gardening this spring. Throughout last season, the Operations Team at SOGA headed a garden revamp. We mulched the pathways, built a beautiful new greenhouse, cleared the fences and worked on the fruit tree orchard. On a campus where hands-on learning and fieldwork can sometimes be hard to come by, the Student Organic Garden offers Cal students a valuable educational experience. SOGA has allowed me to feel connected to a space, which has been important to me while finding my communities at this large university. As a democratically run space, everyone can participate and enhance his or her education. Maybe we will see each other in the garden too.

Anika Rice is a member of the Student Organic Garden Association and a geography student at UC Berkeley.

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