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Gwinnett Tech looks to grow subscription-based agriculture program

Posted July 31

— When someone becomes a subscriber to the Community Supported Agriculture program at Gwinnett Technical College, there is a sense of urgency each week in the summer.

For $29 per week, they can receive a box of fresh vegetables grown in the garden just steps away from Sugarloaf Parkway. Organized and produced by Gwinnett Tech's horticulture department, the CSA program is where community members, students, faculty, or anyone else can sign up and pick up a box of fresh food weekly.

In the midst of the peak summer growing season, the program runs through Sept. 13. This is the fourth summer in production for the farm that's sold produce for three seasons. CSA members also receive the farmers market summer salad series 2017 recipe book, which are recipes created by the students from their own experiences in family traditions and urban agriculture.

"They have to go home and prepare it, they have to cook," said Matthew Boutte, the farm manager who is a semester away from graduating from the horticulture program. "They got all these ingredients, they have to do something with it. And they know they're getting one next week, so they have to eat it."

Essentially, the program means people pay up front to get a subscription of weekly vegetables.

Boutte said it helps farmers, because they can use that capital to help invest in their crops for the year, and it brings people closer to their food, and customers know where it's coming from. Though not certified, Boutte said the farm uses organic practices.

"It's something you don't get from the grocery store," he said.

The garden started in 2013, and has since received a $25,000 grant from Food Well Alliance.

The 20 raised beds are 48 feet long, and recently included a host of produce, including leeks, squash, tomatoes, basil, green peppers, garlic, banana peppers, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and various peppers. In the fall, the garden expects to grow more leafy vegetables as the weather turns cool. Depending on the time of year, the program adds flowers, or recipes for things like pesto if there's a large amount of basil, or an unusual vegetable, like fennel.

The rainy start to the summer posed some unique challenges to keep up with maintenance around the garden.

"Everything grows," Boutte said, "especially the weeds."

The program also works in partnership with Gwinnett Tech's culinary arts division to help its farm-to-table efforts. School officials said the partnership gives students from both programs the opportunity to learn cross-over skills that serve a practical purpose in their future careers.

The overall goal of the program is geared toward education, and that's what Boutte repeated in his explanation of why someone should sign up for the subscription. It's a belief held throughout the horticulture department, including with Program Director Aaron Poulsen.

"We want this to be sustainable, not just environmentally, but economically," Poulsen said, referring to the garden's overall efforts.

Poulsen referred to simple business practices like measuring a market before a product is developed, and developing a profit and loss statement for students learning business principles for future careers in the green industry.

Boutte added that beyond the sheer vegetables, customers see value in the educational component of the effort.

"They know that they're contributing to this environment, or the programs," he said. "They like seeing the farm and the produce every week, so they have no problem opting in and supporting it. I think that's a big drive factor for a lot of people."

He added, "It's more than growing vegetables. I'm surrounded by people who want to learn. That's probably one of the more enjoyable things about it."

The farm is used to teach classes about agriculture so students can earn certificates in areas like sustainable urban agriculture.

"So really boosting those numbers is our primary goal," Boutte said, "because that's going to give us the ability to grow the farm. That's going to give the community the ability to grow their own food. The quicker we get on board with that, the better off we are."

Along with the CSA program, the horticulture program offers a market from noon to 2 p.m. each Thursday.

Those interested in joining the CSA program should contact mboutte@gwinnetttech.edu or call 678-226-6557.

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