Upstate New York college works with campus agricultural center to provide organic and sustainable produce for Dining Services.
At A Glance: Alfred State College
•Foodservice provided by ACES, which also manages vending, catering and the bookstore.
•3,300 total students
•5,000 meals served daily
•$7 million in annual revenue.
•One of SUNY's eaight Colleges of Technology.
•Has one all-you-can-eat facility, two ACES-owned restaurants and five franchised retail locations.
Alfred State College, a SUNY College of Technology with 3,300 students, has taken a homegrown approach to offering locally grown products. The new Center for Organic and Sustainable Agriculture has formed a partnership with Auxiliary Campus Enterprises and Services, the school’s foodservice program, to provide locally grown pro
duce. The center was established in early 2007 as a place to facilitate learning, conduct research and engage communities in the practices of sustainable food and energy production. Karen Canne, director of dining services for ACES, says her department has always been interested in ways it can help support the campus community and improve products for their customers. So the idea of a partnership with COSA—which is made up of agriculture student farmers—was a perfect match, she says. Matthew Harbur, the center’s director and an associate professor in Alfred State’s department of agriculture and horticulture, agrees.
“I believe strongly that our students need to see the entire business cycle to make their education truly worthwhile,” Harbur says. “It makes no sense to teach them how to grow the produce without letting them work the entire market cycle. They need to know how to package, market and sell what they’ve grown.”
Preliminary planting: With, at first, just a verbal agreement between the two organizations, students began to plant in summer 2007. “Because we are a small organization, we were able to cut through the red tape and just make it happen,” Canne says. “In the beginning, we didn’t even have a price negotiated between Matt [Harbur] and ACES. We just agreed that we would work it out when we understood the volume, quantity and quality of what the center was providing us.”
Canne says the partnership with the center was in line with the procedures ACES already had in place.
“We’ve always tried to support local farmers by requesting that our distributors source locally,” Canne says. “What is unique about our relationship with COSA is we will be able to literally skip the middle man and improve nutritional quality, reduce consumption of fuel for transporting the food and support our students.”
The students cultivated the plants on a tenth of an acre plot just a mile away from Dining Services’ kitchen. The students are responsible for harvesting, grading, trimming, packaging and delivering the products to Dining Services. The initial planting had to be timed so the crops would be ready for the fall semester. Throughout the growing process, Canne continually checked on the quality and taste of the products that the center produced. Once satisfied with the products, Dining Services began incorporating the center’s organic greens, tomatoes, yellow squash and fresh herbs into the menu at the college’s all-you-can-eat facility. The products can’t be used campus wide, at least not yet, because of the crops’ small yield.
Going Green(house): When the outdoor growing season ended, the focus moved inside to Alfred State’s new on-campus greenhouse. The greenhouse is currently growing red and green Summer Crisp, Oak Leaf, red and green Romaine and Lollo lettuces, as well as other salad greens, tomatoes, herbs and edible flowers. Canne says that during the past few weeks, Dining Services has received about 15 to 20 pounds of hydroponically grown lettuces from the greenhouse. The plants are grown in polypropylene tubes, which have nutrients running through them. As a result, full heads of lettuce are ready to be harvested only one month after planting. Additionally, COSA is focusing on making their greenhouse systems more sustainable by using a LED [light-emitting diode] light system that uses less energy than pressure sodium lights and doesn’t have the same hazards as fluorescents.
“The beauty of it is that it’s grown right here on our own campus, and we’re able to feed it to our own students and not pass on any additional costs,” Canne says, adding that having the greenhouse on campus has another unexpected benefit.
“Right now, some of the hydroponically grown lettuces have a bit of a bitter aftertaste, so COSA is looking at what they can do differently in the planting to tweak the flavor profile,” Canne says. “How often do you get to converse with the people who are growing your food?”
Along with enabling those conversations, using hydroponics is helping ACES reach its sustainability goals.
“Many people think growing with hydroponics isn’t as sustainable as growing plants in soil, but it reduces the greenhouse space that must be heated and lit and it increases the competitiveness of local vegetables with imported foods,” Harbur. “There are a lot of advantages with hydroponics: less footage required per pound of food produced and, in our system, the ability to grow additional plants below our hydroponics system.”
Canne says as the program progresses, she’d like to see the center grow popular items like carrots, broccoli and cauliflower along with fresh flowers. COSA and ACES hosted a lettuce tasting in April where students and members of the community tasted the varieties of lettuce grown in the greenhouse. Canne says she wanted the event to be like a wine tasting and she hoped to use the results of the tasters’ scorecards to complement the salad bar at the all-you-can-eat facility. Canne says she is excited to see what else the center can do.
“The center learned what grew well and what didn’t during this past season,” Canne says. “They also learned what they needed to do to make the crops more prolific. Three years from now, we’ll have the exact poundage, and what can grow in this region, down pat.” The center is seeking out other organizations on campus, and in the nearby community, to sell products to, such as a possible partnership with the culinary arts department at Alfred State’s Wellsville campus and nearby Alfred University.