A New Field of Learning

Andrew Lesmes ’15 broke ground on a student-run garden that is part business opportunity, part hands-on classroom—and all-focused on more sustainable food production.

It might not seem like much right now—just 968 square feet of earth near the shores of Lake Virginia. But on those .02 acres of ground, Andrew Lesmes ’15 may have just planted the seeds of a food revolution at Rollins.

Lesmes, with the help of academic advisors and dozens of volunteers, recently turned a ribbon of land behind Elizabeth Hall into a vegetable patch and an outdoor classroom of sorts for students to think about their meals, health, and the larger issues of how food is produced, transported, sold, and cooked.

Stemming from an independent study project, the student-run market garden will be self-sustaining through sales to local restaurants—including Hamilton’s Kitchen at The Alfond Inn and Sodexo, operators of the College’s cafeteria—while providing hands-on learning opportunities about food issues.

“It might be a small impact, at first,” says Lesmes, who hopes to study environmental policy in graduate school. “But students can learn about these issues through their experience in the garden.”

Lesmes said he was inspired to do something after hearing Laurie David, a nationally known environmentalist and healthy food activist, speak last year as part of the Rollins Winter Park Institute series. She asked if the College had a vegetable garden. The answer was no.

And that started the chain of events that led to the recent plantings. Weather willing, a few varieties of lettuce should be available in Cornell Campus Center by the end of the semester.

It’s a side-yard-to-salad-bar step in the right direction. The plan is to have signs beside the salad greens to let students know their romaine was sourced at Rollins, where it was planted, cultivated, picked, and transported by students. The initial harvest is also expected to include bell peppers and organic oakleaf and simpson lettuce.

The garden will also provide knowledge and data for academic consumption. It will be part of the curriculum in a few upcoming classes. “Any time you have people getting their hands into the soil, you get a better understanding of food issues,” says Lee Lines, professor of environmental studies and Lesmes’ advisor. “Food intersects with issues of energy, biology, environment, and politics. The garden makes these connections readily apparent and less abstract.”

Lines praised his student’s proposal, which he called the first at Rollins to create a self-sustaining learning and market garden on campus with clear connections to the curriculum. Past efforts were short-lived because of a lack of business plan or academic partnership, but Lesmes was able to draw support from Rollins’ administration, including Acting President Craig McAllaster.

Lesmes also received advice from John Rife, founder of East End Market, which champions local and sustainable food. Andrew did an internship with Rife and discussed several of the issues needed to create a student market garden.

“It has been a pleasure to work with Andrew to see this go from a class project to a real operational market garden that he, his fellow students, and hopefully, the whole faculty can become proud of,” Rife says. “The stage was set for a project like this to finally come to fruition, and it just needed a young visionary like Andrew to make it happen.”

Lesmes is now working on a guide for when the next student manager takes over in the fall semester. Some of the topics include how to connect with local chefs to assess their needs and analyze prices for various vegetables that could be grown here. In addition, there needs to be a process for divvying up the ground for market crops, class projects, academic research, and interested students or staff.

Lines said those efforts and initiatives all are in keeping with Rollins’ tradition of pragmatic learning in multiple fields. He hopes that the new garden will spur students to think about the industrialization of food production and the benefits of locally sourced produce.

“Working in a garden,” he says, “just changes your relationship with food.”