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Ohio State Mansfield student Kyle Dues, left, and Kent “Kip” Curtis, assistant professor of environmental history, check on bok choy growing in the campus microfarm.

Jo McCulty

Big ideas grown at tiny farms

A forestry, fisheries and wildlife major who just finished his first year at Ohio State Mansfield, Kyle Dues found a mission in the campus’ EcoLab and pilot microfarm project.

“This campus is set on a 640-acre wooded lot,” he says. “What better place is there for a forestry major to go to school but a 640-acre wooded lot?”

In the short term, the microfarm project — a concept brought to the Mansfield campus by Kent “Kip” Curtis, an assistant professor of environmental history — will grow plants in high tunnels. The big goal is to create a model for urban agriculture that spawns additional microfarms in the area. Ideally, that would allow urban farmers to capture a larger piece of the food economy in north central Ohio.

“[We’re] on the brink of the opportunity to really do something exciting and of massive importance in [the area],” Curtis says.

What’s a high tunnel?

You’ve probably seen high tunnels at your local greenhouse. They’re composed of a series of metal or plastic arches covered with plastic sheeting. The plastic traps heat inside, creating an ideal environment to nurture plants such as kale, baby greens, cauliflower and cilantro year-round in raised beds.

Dues started working on the Mansfield pilot microfarm as an intern, and he recently became its interim coordinator. Already, the project has approached campus cafeteria operators about buying produce to be served at lunch. “One of the coolest aspects for this entire project is that phrase ‘keeping local dollars local,’” Dues says.

The pilot microfarm — comprising two high tunnels with raised beds as well as several outdoor plant beds on a one-third-acre lot — was designed and built mostly by Ohio State Mansfield students with $100,000 in funding from the university’s Office of Energy and Environment.

“The sorts of things they’re having to do extend well beyond the urban agriculture project,” Curtis says. “It creates a whole set of executive skills. You need to tend to the plants. You need to think about the future. It requires intelligent, cognitive engagements, development of their thinking skills, and it impacts other areas of their life.”

Next up for the project: Curtis plans to apply for a $2 million grant to expedite a low-risk startup environment and
train 15 to 30 people — a mix of community residents, students and alumni — to run microfarms. He’s excited to engage the Mansfield community and its organizations in the initiative.

About the author

John Jarvis

A freelance writer and former newspaper reporter and editor, John Jarvis studied at Ohio State Mansfield.