Sonoma Student Growers Cooperative: Farming, food and much more

By July 2, 2015 July 7th, 2015 Blog
Sonoma Student Growers Cooperative, Left to Right Gabe Sacher, Claudia Sisomphou, Jamal Edwards

In 2011, Tomio Endo joined fellow college student Mac Hart and began tending a garden on a small plot of land south of Sonoma State University. The garden was originally part of Hart’s environmental studies research project exploring student-grown food economies. With the cooperation of a private landowner, Hart grew produce in the small organic garden and sold the harvest to Sonoma State for use in its dining halls.

Endo liked Hart’s idea and started his own garden on the property. Soon other like-minded SSU students heard of the project, joined in and the group became known as the Sonoma Student Growers Cooperative. Since then, nearly two dozen Sonoma State students have participated in the project that, Endo said, has become much more than just a way to earn some bucks.

Tomio Endo, one of the first members of the Sonoma Student Growers Cooperative, with his garlic

Tomio Endo, one of the first members of the Sonoma Student Growers Cooperative, with his garlic

“At first we were just trying to pull out a couple of dollars by growing some produce and selling it back to the school,” Endo said. “But the more the project iterated over the years we started seeing that there was this really big idea about creating a culture at Sonoma State that was missing there…a sense of mentorship and a sense of lived community that was outside (the university).”

Though it is currently not a chartered university organization, Endo said that SSGC has benefitted from mentoring and support from SSU’s Environmental Studies and Planning Department, particularly recently retired Dr. Erv Petersen. The university’s Associated Students also offers five $300 grants each year to offset the cost of liability insurance for the student growers. A private landowner, Endo said, has also continued to donate the use of his property for the farm. Produce generated from the farm is sold to SSU’s Student Center kitchen as well as a few Sonoma County restaurants.

Endo, who served as SSGC’s co-director before graduating in January, said that the farm project grew partly out of a sense of environmental responsibility shared by his fellow student farmers.

“Every grower that has come through our plot has always been a very passionate, self-directed person,” he said. “They were committed to growing and strengthening themselves.”

Located in a semi-rural neighborhood south of East Cotati Avenue, the small Sonoma Student Growers Cooperative farm includes several individual plots each managed by a participating student. Compost piles, a mulch grader and sheds are shared by the student farmers.

A particularly lush-looking plot near the front of the farm belongs to Jamal Edwards who joined the coop a couple of years ago despite having little experience in gardening.

“I just wanted to be able to grow my own food,” Edwards said, standing beside a row of thriving Jerusalem artichoke plants. His plot also includes corn, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, quinoa, chia and other crops. The wide variety, he said, allows him to learn about each crop while creating diversity in the small garden.

“I can focus on it (each crop),” he said. “I can see what’s wrong, I can see what works and doesn’t work and eventually plant it to a larger scale.”

Edwards just earned his degree in environmental studies/energy management but for now is planning to pursue a farming career. He said the SSGC concept of learn-by-doing and mentoring has provided him and his fellow student growers with real-world farming experience as well as a strong sense of community.

“We share with one another and ask questions,” he said. “From there we kind of all work together and solve the problems you have out here. There’s always a helping hand if you need it.”

As recent SSU graduates, Endo and Edwards are passing the SSGC torch to a new group of student growers that includes Claudia Sisomphou and Gabe Sacher. When school starts in the fall, the two new members hope to push SSGC to the next level at the university.

“We’re planning to charter as a club when we get back to school,” Sacher said, “so then it will be more of a formalized organization. We would love it if the school would take it over to ensure that it would continue and that we could work there.”

“As of right now we’re just a group of students,” Sisomphou added.

Like Endo, Edwards and other past and present SSGC members, Sisomphou and Sacher joined the coop for reasons deeper than a way to make some money by growing vegetables.

“For me,” Sisomphou said, “the Sonoma Student Grower Cooperative is that spot in my life where I can really focus and do specific work in sustainable agriculture. How to educate others and how to educate myself on the proper ways to grow food and to be able to choose what goes into my food and what I am eating. I like the education aspect of it, I like the social-justice aspect of it and I like food.”

Sacher said that the idea of SSU students growing food for the university seems like a no-brainer, especially in Sonoma County.

“We’re surrounded by farms yet we (the university) buy everything from Sysco,” he said, referring to the nationwide foodservice supplier. “It’s surprising how little land it takes to produce what you need, yet we don’t even try.”

Providing a hands-on growing experience, Sacher said, also provides a new perspective on agriculture and food production, expanding students’ options for the future.

“Programs like ours, which is super small, provide kind of a springboard for careers,” Sacher said, “because what people don’t realize is that not everyone can work in a hospital or in IT (Information Technology). There are so many positions that people take like sales reps and stuff and that can all relate to farming. You can be a sales rep for a winery. You can lead winery operations. It kind of takes doing it yourself, even on a small scale, to figure out if this is something you’d like to do…to take your career outside of an office.”

The coop aligns perfectly with Sisomphou’s career plans. She hopes to someday be involved in politics or lobbying to advocate for individuals’ rights as they relate to food, water, comfort and safety. Sisomphou said that SSGC also provides her and others with a sense of empowerment when considering the environmental challenges and other issues in today’s world.

“I think the people of our generation definitely want to be in control of our lives because I think a lot of these (current) environmental issues were completely out of our control,” she said. “That can either really bring you down or that can really empower you. So growing your own food, having that stability and that power to do that is really awesome for young people. It’s not just food. It’s everything that goes along with food.”

Kip Davis is a freelance writer and a member of Slow Food Russian River.

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