A Growing Project

Founded in 1883 in central Florida, Stetson University is an independent university in the liberal arts tradition. The College of Arts & Sciences, School of Business Administration, and School of Music are located at the historic campus in DeLand, between Orlando and Daytona Beach. The Stetson College of Law is in Gulfport/St. Petersburg. The University also includes two satellite centers: the Stetson University Center at Celebration, near Orlando; and the Tampa Law Center in downtown Tampa.

Stetson University has developed a new learning and teaching environment in the form of an organic garden that has taken root on the grounds of the University’s Marshall and Vera Lea Rinker Environmental Learning Center (RELC), located adjacent to the Gillespie Museum on the DeLand campus.

The Hatter Harvest garden is a place of lush growth, healthy plants, and fellowship and camaraderie, where students are able dig into the soil any month of the year, share the fun of growing food, and enjoy eating the bounty. It is also a place of serious thought and reflection, fostered by the beliefs of undergraduates committed to the societal, ecological, community, and health aspects of food sustainability and environmental awareness.

“I don’t see our garden as an idle hobby, or something we do on a whim to kill some time, but as an imperative social movement,” said student Caity Peterson, one of three co-founders and co-presidents of the garden. “I want the garden to be something that inspires curiosity about the origins of our food, builds community, and brings about thoughtful lifestyle changes.”

Food for Thought
The Hatter Harvesters grow lettuce, broccoli, chard, peas, beans, carrots, radishes, squash, and other vegetables in a sustainable manner on the DeLand campus, the most eastern of Stetson’s two campuses and two satellite centers. Currently, the food is distributed informally among project participants and friends. In the future, Hatter Harvesters would like to see locally produced food feed everyone on campus.

“Rather than food being just about sustenance, colleges are focusing on how food can enrich the college experience and contribute to the long-term health and intellectual development of the students,” said co-founder and co-president Kate Matthews, who was inspired by the higher-ed sustainable dining and food production programs she researched for an English class paper in her freshman year.

Squash, lettuce, and onions were among a limited selection of crops planted when the garden was started in 2009, with everything watered via buckets of rainwater collected in barrels. A compost pile also was started. The garden site, vegetable varieties, and project scope have grown as more students join the initiative and project plans mature. This semester, the Hatter Harvesters branched out into educational awareness, both on campus and in the local community. Garden Awareness Week in March included a focus on food waste, a garden trivia game, airing of the movie “Food, Inc.”, and a nighttime musical jam session in the garden.

The third Hatter Harvest co-founder and co-resident, Heather Grove, recently won a Carter Academic Service Entrepreneur (CASE) grant for $1,000 to fund outreach efforts — including tours and garden activities for local youth — and signage explaining the garden’s ecological benefits.

“An organic garden can have a great impact on society by uniting fragmented communities and changing our lifestyles,” said Grove. “For me, today’s popular term ‘going green’ means more than just recycling, but producing as much as we can for ourselves. And what better way to do so than with a garden? What do people come together for now? For food!”

Taking Root

The seed for the garden was planted in 2008, when a handful of concerned students approached the University’s Environmental Responsibility Council (ERC) and asked for support and authorization for their idea. From that discussion grew the founding of the Hatter Harvest student organization and the establishment of the garden.

“To me as an educator, the Hatter Harvesters are exciting for several reasons: It is a student initiative, and it touches on many disciplines — biology, environmental science, business, health science, communication — all working together,” said Dr. Anne Hallum, chair of the ERC and advisor to the Hatter Harvest group.

 “Plus, you work outside, get your hands dirty, and literally see the 'fruits of your labor,’” said Hallum, a professor of political science whose own environmental initiatives provide a model for students. She is co-founder and U.S. chair of the Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR), which helps Guatemalans start tree nurseries and learn about sustainable farming. Since 1993, AIR has worked cooperatively with Guatemalans to plant three million trees.

Hallum, along with staff from Stetson’s Department of Facilities Management and other faculty and staff members, helped students prepare and launch the garden. The RELC site was the natural choice for the Hatter Harvest project location. The RELC was built in 2008 and features a geothermal loop system, rainwater collection system, gray-water flush system, roofing made of recycled metal, a native Florida plant landscape, and other green features. The RELC is currently in the review stage for LEED certification.

Looking Ahead
Grove says the Hatter Harvester co-presidents co-founded the project as the synergetic response to individual visions, including her societal and environmental point of view, and Peterson and Matthews’ emphasis on the health benefits of organic and locally produced food. The three students stress that the Hatter Harvest initiative is important for everyone. “If we can start to think locally, we can begin to live more sustainably and responsibly,” said Grove.

Matthews envisions local production helping rebuild the lost link between food and the land, and is encouraged by the continuing growth of sustainable and organic agriculture and its accompanying reduction in shipping distances and its benefits for the environment.

“Agriculture can be a powerful mechanism for change,” added Peterson. “If we can change the way we think about our food, then we will have gone a long way toward addressing some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time.”

Visitors to the DeLand campus may see the Hatter Harvest garden on the grounds of Stetson’s Rinker Environmental Learning Center, 230 E. Michigan Ave., DeLand. To learn more about the project, e-mail [email protected]

Gerri Bauer is a communications specialist in the Office of Public Relations and Communications at Stetson University. She can be reached at 386/822-8920 or via e-mail at [email protected]