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College students design, build West Side micro-farm

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There was just a yard at the corner of Ohio Avenue and Washington Street West when Davis & Elkins College students showed up there Saturday. When they left, though, it was a classroom of sorts.Students from the college's Introduction to Sustainability Studies class helped build the Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneur Initiative classroom garden at the corner on Charleston's West Side over the weekend. The Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneur Initiative -- or SAGE for short -- is a part of the Charleston Area Alliance's Vision 2030 program."It was one big rectangle of grass yesterday," said Russ McClain, director of the Center for Sustainability Studies at the college.Fifty to 60 percent of McClain's class focused on the design and construction of the "micro-farm," he said."The students need a little nudge, but this was their project," he said.In January, the garden classroom will be where participants in the SAGE initiative plant and grow their produce, which they will then sell to local food suppliers.Participants in the program, which will include 12 agriculture classes in urban micro-farming and six courses in entrepreneurship, will decide what produce to grow in the space.The aim of the SAGE is that the students, on their own, will be able to replicate the techniques they learn during the class and that other communities will be able to implement similar programs."This is a 'teach-a-man-to-fish' program," said Kelly Crane, a contract worker for the Charleston Area Alliance. "Hopefully this will seed -- pun intended -- larger economic development and community food programs."
Other partners in the program include Bullock Properties, the University of Charleston, West Virginia University Extension Service and the Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action. The class was funded with a Campus-Community LINK grant from West Virginia Campus Compact.SAGE is open to anyone in the area over age 16. Preference will be given to West Side residents, she said.Food in West Virginia is a $6-billion-a-year industry, Crane said. The state is only producing $6 million of that, she said."There's an endless market for local [food]," she said. "What we're doing here is growing -- pun intended -- local growers."Students from the Davis & Elkins class met earlier with representatives from the various markets for local foods to determine which foods were most needed.The garden area itself features a 10-feet by 10-feet outdoor classroom area and 100 square feet of pollinated beds. Butterfly, bird and bat houses will soon be added to the space, said Mark Lanham, a Davis & Elkins student and the project foreman.
"In a sense, this yard is becoming its own ecosystem," Lanham said.Lanham, a 50-year-old former Marine and self-described unconventional student, said seeing the students work on the project in and outside the classroom gave him a better opinion of the younger generation."I was so impressed and proud of these students," he said. "They were great."Reach Lori Kersey at or 304-348-1240.
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