At Dakota County Tech, produce and students’ expertise both grow
By Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press reporter
A group of students at Dakota County Technical College are learning how sustainable food production is increasingly becoming part of the landscape.
Matt Brooks, an instructor of landscape horticulture, launched a certificate program last month in sustainable food systems to train students in how to create environmentally friendly gardens. The certificate complements the college’s landscape horticulture associate’s degree.
Brooks spent a year developing the courses after a growing number of his students showed more interest in parts of existing classes that addressed sustainable food production.
“It was a small piece, but students really dug into it,” Brooks said.
For most of Brooks’ career, landscape design was aboutmaking things “ornamental and pretty, not productive,” he said. But that is changing as more consumers opt to eat locally produced fruits and vegetables.
Now, clients are increasingly asking for landscapes that are not only resource efficient, but that produce food.
Consumers are learning that food sold in grocery stores often is produced with dangerous pesticides and can be less nutritious, Brooks said. “People are starting to see the value in locally produced food and growing their own food.”
The certificate program focuses on growing, harvesting and marketing sustainably grown produce on small urban and suburban plots. Students have begun creating a living lab on the college campus where they can experiment with different gardening methods.
On a hot day recently, students piled up tree branches and other brush they would later cover with soil to create a planting bed. This hugel kultur bed, Brooks explained, allows organic material to break down and is a highly efficient way of holding moisture and nutrients for plants.
Students Wynne Sutton of Eagan and John Beall of South St. Paul took a break from lugging logs to talk about how Brooks’ courses piqued their appetite. Both are retirees embarking on second careers.
Sutton plans to start her own business creating raised gardening beds for the elderly and disabled.
She earned her associate’s degree in the spring, but returned because the new certificate program fit so nicely with her business model.
Beall, a former family practice doctor, enrolled in the program to feed his passion for gardening.
“I’m finally doing something I love,” he said with a smile. “I always thought I knew a lot about gardening, but I’m learning now I was wrong.”
Sutton and Beall see consumers’ growing interest in locally produced food as a return to simpler times.
“We are coming full circle,” Sutton said. “Some of the things we are learning about are similar to what our grandparents did on the family farm.”
Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/cmaganPiPress