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College of Marin's organic farming students get hands-on experience

IVC Organic garden
College of Marin students plant rows of crops on Wednesday at the college's organic farm on the Indian Valley campus in Novato. (IJ photo/Robert Tong)

Rob Rogers, Marin IJ, link to article
March 20, 2009

Bonnie Bibas went to Africa with dreams of changing the world, but discovered she wasn't ready.

"I worked on an aid project for two years, but I didn't know any useful skills," the Ross resident said. "Since I've come back, I've tried to learn midwifery. I've learned a lot about nutrition. And now I'm filling in the gaps with this class."
Will Scott and Sofi Setrackian
College students Will Scott (left) and Sofi Setrackian plant purple cabbage at the college's new organic farm in Indian Valley. (IJ photo/Robert Tong)
Every Wednesday, Bibas and 31 other students gather at the College of Marin's Indian Valley campus in Novato as part of the school's first class in organic farming. The students spend part of their time in the classroom, learning about soil chemistry and nutrition from teachers like Steve Quirt, an instructor with the University of California's Cooperative Extension, and Green Gulch Zen Center gardener Wendy Johnson, author of "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate."
During the rest of the class, however, Bibas gets her hands dirty.
"It's the most hands-on experience," said Bibas, digging a shovel into one of several raised beds that will become part of the college's organic farm.
Didier Kaiserand Will Hatchinson
College of Marin students Didier Kaiser (left) and Will Hatchinson plant lettuce at an organic farm at College of Marin's Indian Valley campus. (IJ photo/Robert Tong
Built as part of a collaboration between the College of Marin, the Marin Conservation Corps and the UC Cooperative Extension's Marin Master Gardeners, the 5.8-acre farm is the focal point for two of the college's new academic programs: the organic farm and garden and the environmental landscaping program.
While several Bay Area schools offer agricultural courses, both College of Marin programs emphasize the idea of "agroecology," the idea that the ways in which humans transform their landscape can restore and preserve the balance of the earth.
"Local food systems are at the core of the green economy," said Nanda Schorske, dean of workforce development and college-community partnerships at the Indian Valley campus. "People who understand the responsibility for using our resources want gardens rather than lawns."
Schorske also noted that the farm program is truly a community effort. While the college employs the faculty, the Marin Conservation Corps is responsible for running the farm. The project has received financial support from the Marin Board of Supervisors and the Marin Community Foundation. Other partners include the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the Marin Farmers Market Association, and Marin Organic.
The class began March 4 with 20 students. By Wednesday, its third meeting, the class had ballooned to 32 students, Schorske said.
One of them is Novato resident Victoria Stavis. A former chef, Stavis now says she's interested in landscaping, and hopes to create an organic garden to supply her kitchen.
"I was lucky to get in," said Stavis, who was on the waiting list for the program. "I love everything about it."
Although he's already an experienced grower, having worked at Peter Martinelli's Bolinas ranch, Stinson Beach resident Will Scott said the College of Marin program is something special.
"They don't just teach us how to plant a seed; we actually do it," said Scott, who says he expects to have little problem putting his education to use.
"Marin County is at full production in terms of its organic vegetables," Scott said. "There's no problem selling all of its produce. There are so many opportunities in this field."
Bibas, too, is sure she'll be using what she's learned in the class, even if she never returns to Africa.
"I'll be using these skills some place," Bibas said. "Everyone wants to be part of something larger than themselves."

Contact Rob Rogers via e-mail at rrogers@marinij.com