OXFORD – Miami University recently built a new “institute for food” which seeks to answer the question of whether future generations have access to sustainable farming.
This endeavor was funded by a three-year seed grant amounting to $200,000 from the university’s Provost Innovation & Interdisciplinary Fund.
The Institute has to become self-reliant by that three-year deadline, or the university will pull its support.
Last year Peggy Shaffer, Professor of American Studies & History, and Alfredo Huerta, Associate Professor of Biology, submitted a proposal to build the food institute.
Professor Huerta explained the idea behind the institute: “In essence it’s just a multidisciplinary program that has the objective to promote education and learning for students in the area of food and all aspects related to food.”
It is a true interdisciplinary institute, combining Business with Art, with English, and more. Instructors want students to study food from all aspects, such as; writing about food, food in culture, food in society, etc. There is even a course which brings together faculty and students so they can understand what is involved in food production.
The institute seeks to help students understand the importance of sustainability.
“If you analyze our current agricultural production system, it really is not sustainable,” Professor Huerta explained. “It’s easy to think that it is, but the constant input of pesticides, the constant misuse of the soil resulting in soil erosion, resulting in loss of water quality, loss of natural diversity of animals and insects. Eventually we’re going toward mass extinction.”
He believes humans need to have a better approach which keeps sustainability in mind and is not money-centric.
“Food does not come from a supermarket, it comes from a farm,” he stressed. Farms sometimes find it difficult to get their food into supermarkets. They can be across from a large grocery story, but still have to ship their food halfway across the state. There are also many regulations when it comes to these markets.
Huerta wants to break down the corporate wall which is separating these small farms from consumers.
The idea is to study the theoretical and academic views on food, while also giving students hands-on farm experience. The experience will come from the acres of land the university lent the Institute to build an organic farm. It is located off Morning Sun Road, on Somerville Road. This is the first season students have planted, and their crops include lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, and more.
There were supposed to be 35-acres of land, but the university only gave the Institute a few due to a previous arrangement with another farmer. The institute also had a project planned which included building a sporting complex and golf course on the land.
“We’d like to show that this is better,” Professor Huerta admitted with a laugh.
The ultimate goal of the farm is to become certified organic, but that is a 3-year process, so the farm, as of yet, is not “certofied” organic. However, no synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides are used on the crops.
The farm has already come a long way from January, when the land they started with was a cornfield. Now they have an acre’s-worth of crops producing, and several acres growing cover-crops to keep the soil in good condition.
Their first big harvest was planned in January, planted in April/May, and harvested June 22, for the Miami University president’s retirement dinner. The cooks used most of what the Institute provided.
However, the farm may be too good to be true. It has to become financially independent from Miami University by the end of three years, or the university might shut it down, according to officials.
This is why the Institute is constantly seeking donors and outside support.
“We’re actively seeking support from external sources like grant proposals as well as potential donors, corporate donors, corporate sponsors. ,” Huerta said. “We would really like to get involved with more alumni donors. I think once they figured out what we’re doing, they would be interested in supporting this as a cause that is worthwhile.”
The business plan is to sell to the university, seeing it as the perfect partnership. They sell what they produce to the Culinary Support Center (which prepares food for campus consumption).
Thus, the food they grow at the farm is driven by what the Support Center needs to have (lettuce, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, etc.) Institute officials want to expand to fruits and berries as well as trees and other permanent vegetables. However, that does not seem to be feasible in the near future. The Institute cannot have any permanent features on the land they were given by the University.
“At this point in time the continuation of the institute is still in question,” Huerta said. It all ties back to the funding that the program needs in order to stay open. If the lack of funding continues, then there is a distinct possibility the university will take the land back for its own use.
Huerta wants to prove this is something helpful to the university in the long term, but as of yet he has no marketing plans. It’s a work in progress, but he believes it is a worthwhile project. He questioned, “If we don’t do this, then who will?”
He feels someone needs to start this food movement. He sees an increase in cancer and diseases because of the toxic chemicals infecting the environment. He thinks the worst thing to happen to the environment is the loss of soil, and in the next few hundred years we will run out of soil, he said.
He can see this institute becoming a training center for young, local farmers and a hub for sustainability.
As for the typical question concerning organic food price, Professor Huerta has one question return: “Given that non-organic food tends to have higher level of pesticides, my question to you is: have you priced cancer?”
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