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Howdy Farm: Dirt, labor yield healthy, community-minded college grads

Matthew Weintrub left life in the city after high school and entered college as a finance major.

Things got dirty after that, he confesses.

Peer pressure lured him to a field in the shadows of Kyle Field football stadium at Texas A&M University and changed his life forever.

Weintrub quit his major, and a website tells the rest: He became a farmer--a farmer intent on feeding himself, his fellow students and a hungry world.

"The Texas A&M Howdy Farm is a student-run, student-led initiative to create an experiential learning community where people can learn sustainable agriculture," said Weintrub, the farm's manager.

It was a friend and founder of Howdy Farm, Brady Grimes, who nudged Weintrub to the land.

"It transformed my experience at Texas A&M because I had learned all this stuff in the classroom when it comes to science and biology, but it's kind of hard to connect plant science when you're not dealing with actual plants," he said. "Coming out here changed how I think. You have to think daily about what you're growing. In a classroom, you don't experience such things as checking the soil moisture, walking through and noticing bugs and infestations, or knowing when to harvest something at what size. All of that stuff came together when I came out here to the farm."

Weintrub said his eyes also were opened after taking a freshman course in nutrition.

"I learned a lot even though I had eaten healthy foods growing up," he said. "And then I realized something else that really hit me hard: I know to eat a banana because it's good for me and has potassium, but I had no idea where a banana came from. I had no idea where anything came from, and I knew I needed to learn. So I switched my major to horticulture from finance, and I have been immersing myself in science since then."

Weintrub now is nudging other students to get the hands-on learning while producing healthy food to eat.

What began as a few hundred square feet of raised beds on the main campus has become about 5 acres on a field near the AgriLife Complex on Texas A&M's West Campus. After yielding a hundred pounds of squash--more than the hungry college farmers could consume--the group partnered with campus dining services to buy their produce for the university's campus eateries.

The students then applied for a grant from the Aggie Green Fund in 2011 and received $50,000.

"That allowed us to grow tremendously," Weintrub said, noting that Howdy Farm has year-round production.

Howdy Farm is a Community-Supported Agriculture system that sells memberships to students and others in the community. For $240, a person receives an allotment of vegetables for 12 weeks. Membership information can be found at http://studentfarm.tamu.edu.

The fall Howdy Farm now is growing winter squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe, tomatoes, beans, sweet peas, mustard greens, spinach, turnips and kale, Weintrub said. Some summer eggplant, okra and peppers are still producing as well. The group also sells extra produce at the Brazos Valley Farmers Market and Urban Harvest Farmers Market in Houston.

Also linked to the Howdy Farm umbrella is a Sustainable Agriculture student organization, an "army of volunteers" who works in the field three days a week, internships and undergraduate research for which students in any major can earn college course credit, graduate research on watermelon breeding and aquaculture, and the Horticulture 325 Vegetable Crop Production course, he said.

The students also received a second grant for $96,000 in 2012 to build a greenhouse education facility, Weintrub noted.

"It is my hope this grant allows us to create a facility, possibly called the Howdy Farm Sustainability Center, to serve as the farm's first piece in developing a multi-departmental interdisciplinary learning lab for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences," Weintrub said.

Weintrub said having a farm on campus close enough for students to walk, drive, bike or bus to is part of the success and attraction, though it is not known if the field will always be available or will be the site of a future building.

But the experience already has molded his life as well as those of all the other student farmers.

Horticulture is in a "revival" today, he believes.

"If you look at policies from the United Nations to localities in Texas, we have different avenues on how we're going to feed the world. I think part of that is urban farming and I think part of that is small-scale sustainable farming," he said. "I want to go to graduate school because I need to learn more, but in the end I have to be outside in the sun and working with my hands.

"It's also sad that some people in the world go to bed hungry, and we have been struggling over this for a hundred years asking ourselves 'how are we going to feed the world?' But we're still not there," Weintrub added. "I think that if we can get back to where we started and work locally to increase food production in all localities where there are people with small gardens at home and autonomous robot farms for the community, we can solve hunger. But I think it starts with a more conscious mindset of what we're doing. It starts by educating our peers, our community and our state one day at a time."

Follow the Texas A&M Howdy! Farm on Facebook at facebook.com/tamuhowdyfarm.

Date: 10/8/2012



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