URI aims to grow, donate 100,000 pounds of fresh vegetables to food banks
Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892
Fertilizer research project, Master Gardeners contributing to effort
KINGSTON, R.I. -- August 20, 2004 -- When Whitney O'Hanian returned to the University of Rhode Island to pursue a master's degree in plant sciences, she didn't realize that her thesis project would turn into a community service project at the same time.
O'Hanian is testing the effectiveness of a processed biosolid fertilizer on a variety of agricultural crops and donating the resulting produce to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. It's one of several URI projects that, combined, will provide as many as 100,000 pounds of fresh vegetables to needy families in the state this year.
"One thing I've learned with this project is how much work I can do in a day," said the 24-year-old Providence resident. "Yesterday I planted 1,078 cabbage plants, which I thought was pretty good. But I also planted too many other crops earlier in the season, and since we're not using any herbicides, I lost some to the weeds."
A walk around O'Hanian's one-and-a-half acre plot of land on the URI Kingston Campus finds more than 2,000 eggplant and tomato plants almost ready to harvest, as well as broccoli, spinach, and squash, all framed on two sides by row after row of corn. Earlier in the season she harvested 183 pounds of radishes.
It's easy to see the differences in the plant growth rates where the biosolid fertilizer was applied compared to where it wasn't applied. The fertilized eggplant plants appear to be about 25 percent taller than the unfertilized plants.
"The big question is whether the biosolid will affect the microbial population in the soil," said O'Hanian, who is being advised on her project by URI Professor W. Michael Sullivan. "It wouldn't be good if it killed the microbes."
The URI graduate student is making plans to recruit a group of fraternity brothers to help harvest her vegetables. "Cabbage is easy to plant, but when they're ready to harvest, they're heavy," she said.
The URI Master Gardeners are also using teamwork to harvest vegetables for the Food Bank and for local emergency food pantries. According to Tom Meade, a URI Master Gardener and coordinator of the state's Plant a Row for the Hungry program, every week since June a team of volunteers has harvested several bushels of produce for the needy.
Last year the Master Gardeners harvested 26,000 pounds of vegetables from their garden at URI's East Farm, and this year they aim to grow even more.
Meade is encouraging churches and other community groups to join in the effort as well. He already has a commitment from the Community College of Rhode Island to plant a vegetable garden next year.
"Using volunteers, students and Master Gardeners, there's great potential here at URI to produce a lot of food," said Bernie Beaudreau, executive director of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, during a recent tour of O'Hanian's research project. "You've got more than a garden plot here. You've got a farm that holds real promise for significant local production for feeding the needy.
"Eight years ago the Food Bank distributed no fresh local produce at all, but our traditional food sources are getting leaner and fresh produce is in demand. One-third of the people we serve are recent immigrants who aren't used to packaged foods and who appreciate fresh produce, but it's often too expensive. URI's efforts are very important to them," Beaudreau added.