This year, Ohio University's Earth Month observation focuses on sustainability issues surrounding the most fundamental of human needs: food. This weekly series seeks to address many aspects of a sustainable food system, including organic, local, vegetarian and vegan choices.
Organic farming, whether in a backyard garden, vacant city plot, or on a thousand-acre estate, involves growing food without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
By adopting this means of production, farmers and gardeners reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with the manufacture and use of fossil-fuel based chemicals, while alleviating concerns about the possible health effects of consuming produce sprayed with pesticides.
Fewer than 1 percent of American farms use organic practices, but this does not count the many gardeners in Athens and elsewhere who grow fresh, organic produce in their own backyard.
Cait Nolan, a second-year graduate student in the printmaking program, has been doing just this.
Nolan started college gardening as an undergrad at Kutztown University by planting in pots in her dorm room. Since then, she has planted backyard gardens as she has moved from place to place.
Though Nolan learned much of her gardening skills from her grandfather, who regularly used chemicals, Cait said she never considered using them.
The ecological benefits, the increased nutrition of fresh produce and the pleasure she takes in gardening, have all motivated her to work the soil organically, she explained. The greater connection she feels to the food she eats is also a plus.
"It's crucial that people know where their food comes from, and the best way to do that is to grown your own food," said Nolan, while gardening through the cold wind of an early Athens spring afternoon.
Last week, Nolan planted potatoes and spinach in a 15x15-foot plot at the community gardens on West State Street in Athens. The community gardens are owned and operated by Community Food Initiatives (CFI).
Nolan is one of a handful of students who use this space and benefit from the experience and knowledge of other community gardeners, many of who have had plots for 10 years or more. She recently designed and installed a bamboo deer fence, for example, based on the fence that surrounds a neighboring plot.
This year, Nolan will grow onions, potatoes, kale, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, and sugar snap peas. Ten percent of the produce grown at the CFI gardens must be donated to local shelters, and Nolan intends to use the rest of the harvest to cook for herself and her friends.
Once the summer has ended, she uses storing techniques to greatly extend the life of her produce so she can keep making and serving delicious meals.
"I was still eating tomato sauce from the garden in January," she said.
Nolan sums up her gardening philosophy as, "If you put something in the ground, it'll grow."
Like many students, the size and diligence of her gardening is limited by the transience of college life for at least a little longer. Nevertheless, Cait intends to keep gardening throughout her life, with a dream of eventually having much larger plot where she will grow the majority of her own food. Organically, of course.