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The UGArden Is a Place Where Produce and People Grow

Student Erica Head weeds a section of crops. Credit: Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA

The sun beams down onto the tin roof of the main barn at the UGArden Student Community Farm. Bird songs echo through the open entrance. The wind picks up slightly over the soft rolling hills less than a 15-minute drive from bustling North Campus.

The UGArden is a 9-acre plot of land that has grown from a small student-run organization called Campus Community Garden Initiative to a farm complete with multiple greenhouses, two barns, wind tunnels, tractors, an herb garden and produce gardens. Professors use this plot of land as a classroom as well, teaching horticulture and other agricultural classes with hands-on experience. 

Hayley Hunter’s roots run deep with the UGArden. She worked as an intern her sophomore year, served as the UGArden Club president during her senior year and was enrolled in a class at the farm her last semester. The class she chose was not required for her major in International Affairs, she said, yet it fulfilled some of the requirements for her horticulture minor and sustainability certificate, while allowing her to soak up as much time at the farm as she possibly could. 

Hunter’s professor gave her the assignment to care for her own 4-by-8 box of plants. The students all started their seeds in the greenhouse, then worked on maintenance and harvesting after moving them to their boxes. There is also a service aspect to the class. Each of the college students were given a topic to cover, and would explain their subjects to the K-12 students that came through the farm. Hunter taught about bees. 

After graduation, Hunter planned on going to graduate school and enrolling in a program focused on food security. “This is a good way to learn about local solutions to [food insecurity] or how to implement local food systems at a school or community garden,” she said.

Food insecurity is a major issue in Athens-Clarke County. In 2017, 24.2% of children in Clarke County lived in homes that did not have reliable access to the nutritious foods that are necessary for development. Issues like COVID-19 have likely made that number even worse. 

Very little of the produce harvested at the UGArden is sold for profit. It is also the only farm at UGA where the produce doesn’t go directly to research or dining halls. The majority of the produce is donated to partners Meals on Wheels and Campus Kitchen. UGArden has a spice and tea business that helps pay the bills, although the majority of the money used to support and run the garden comes from grants and college departments like the College of Agriculture and the Department of Sustainability. 

The mission of the UGArden, as stated by farm manager Johannah Biang, is to “teach and help the community.” She referred to the garden as a personal passion that allows her to be a part of a space where students get to learn and make mistakes while contributing to the community in a meaningful way. But the work can also be unpredictable. “We never really know how much we are going to have to work with, because the budget comes from all over the place, and it changes,” said Biang.

Biang is currently the only full-time employee at the farm, although many assistants and volunteers work alongside her. Biang said the money used to pay assistants is provided through grants, which means the jobs are not able to sustain them fully, naturally limiting the time and commitment they can give to the garden. 

If the university allocated more funds for staffing, it would relieve a lot of stress not only for her, but her coworkers as well, Biang said. She said that it would reassure them that their jobs were going to continue. If the garden did have more funding, the first step that Biang would take is making her assistant full-time, as well as adding two other positions to the team. She said that the herbal tea business would benefit a lot from having a person who could take control and handle all the finances, as well as other responsibilities that come with owning a small business. The second position would be in educational outreach. 

Biang said she loves to see people’s confidence grow as she teaches them how to harvest their own food: “Once you get it, anyone can do it.” UGA is a big school with many students, but at the end of the day, the university is only a small part of an even larger community. She encourages students to “try to give back wherever you are for even just a short amount of time.”  

The giving aspect of the garden is one of the main reasons then-freshman Ezra Lewis decided to intern with the UGArden last spring. “That’s what makes it fulfilling, is knowing that it’s going towards something that’s outside of myself and helping someone,” Lewis said. 

Lewis also enjoyed the aspect of scheduled time outside. With 73% of college students experiencing some sort of mental health crisis, Lewis was thankful for the opportunity to spend so much time in the garden, even going as far as to call it a mental health class. “Every time I leave, I feel like I have more energy than I had coming into it, and I feel like I’ve never gotten to experience that in a classroom,” Lewis said.