New program links UK with farmers

By Wesley Yonts

Class means more than just grades for UK agriculture students — it also means sharing the success and hardships of farmers in the community.

Students majoring in the new sustainable agriculture program will have the opportunity to participate in an experiential learning project that promotes a system of farming known as community-supported agriculture.

“(Community-supported agriculture) is a partnership that consumers and farmers enter into with each other,” said Ben Abell, a community-supported agriculture manager at UK. “Basically a customer pays a farmer a membership fee to be entitled to a seasons’ worth of produce, a share of that farm.”

Students in the major will apprentice on UK-owned farms, working in the gardens to grow food but also to learn about the economic aspects of farming, said Mark Williams, professor of horticulture and director of the sustainable agriculture program.

“Farming is not just something you learn about in class,” said Jessica Ballard, a student who is participating in the new major.

As part of the project, UK students, faculty and staff can pay between $400 and $550 to receive fresh produce for 26 weeks during Kentucky’s growing season.

Community-supported agriculture is a new way of thinking about farming, Abell said.

“If a farm has an excellent season, where everything is bountiful, you get an excellent share,” Abell said. “If the farm goes through some tough times in that season — there’s a drought, there’s a flood, there’s a bad pest infestation — all these things affect the farmer’s harvest, and that trickles down to (the consumer).”

The shares vary from month to month depending on what is in season, Williams said, but UK consumers will get tomatoes, corn, beans, potatoes, hot peppers, garlic, melons and thyme. All of the food is completely organic, he said.

The community-supported agriculture program teaches “integrating environmental stewardship, economic marketing and social sustainability,” Williams said.

“It’s learning and being a part of a system that doesn’t put the farmer at a disadvantage,” Williams said. “It’s about creating a community around the farm. This way, you’re not taking out loans each year, and the shareholders get crops grown for taste and for quality, not for shipping.”

The community program will be about more than just how to farm — it will look into the relationship of the consumer to the farmer, which other agriculture programs don’t do, Abell said.

“Basically, the idea is that customers share in the hardships along with the farmer, that the farmer isn’t left high and dry if he has a bad year,” Abell said. “It means he has a community of support that surrounds him.”