Suburban students go back to the land

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As gardeners know, lettuce doesn’t do well in the high temperatures of July and August. It just turns bitter and bolts. Enter Anna Wallis, a graduate student at the University of Maryland who is testing the heat tolerance of five new varieties of romaine lettuce.

The results are promising, she says, and they raise the possibility that a lettuce crop could linger long enough in summer to coincide with the tomato harvest.

This would be a boon to the home gardeners among us, but Wallis, 25, has higher aspirations for her greens. Summer lettuce would give farmers a greater array of produce and reduce the food miles associated with a salad green grown for the most part in the Central Valley of California.

“I’m studying all aspects of sustainable farming,” she said.

In years past, the students of animal and plant science at Maryland’s land-grant university were from the farm themselves. After taking a degree, they would return to the family farm and raise dairy herds near Frederick or grow sweet corn and soybeans on the Eastern Shore, or produce apples in the mountains. But Wallis grew up on the edge of suburbia north of Baltimore, never lived on a farm and saw the farmland of her youth nibbled away by development.

She is of a generation of suburban kids who might not know how to operate a tractor but grew up listening to a noisy national debate over the ills of industrial agriculture, a crisis of health and obesity linked to poor diet, and a locavore movement championed by figures such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and Michelle Obama.

Wallis is part of a group of students at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the College Park campus who are figuring out how to turn a belief in the principles of the local food movement — environmental sustainability, social justice, better nutrition — into tangible careers. “Organic food has become almost a holy buzzword,” said Christopher Walsh, a professor of horticulture and Wallis’s adviser. “It’s a subset of what this generation is about. I’m thrilled by it.”

Apart from following the tough life of small-scale farming, these students might end up becoming food safety specialists, county extension agents or plant pathologists. One of Walsh’s students is intrigued by the cultivation challenges of medical marijuana; another went on to become a winemaker in Virginia. “Horticulture is very much an eclectic business,” Walsh said.

Wallis said having her own organic farm is “a dream I keep in my head. It’s hard for me to see that right now. I don’t have any money, I don’t have any land. But I think I would very much, if not have my own farm, be involved in actual farming.”

She has no illusions that farming is an idyllic life: In addition to her work on lettuce (and worm compost) at the university’s research farm in Queenstown, she works as an intern at Eco City Farms, which has two pioneering urban farms in greater Washington. Her day at the Edmonston farm might be spent building hoop houses, starting seeds, prepping beds or harvesting vegetables in the morning to sell at the local farmers’ market in the afternoon.

“For farmers I have met, it’s not an easy business,” she said. “I admire them for doing it.”

As an undergrad, Wallis studied biology, a major geared toward pre-med students. “I found I was more interested in people and plants. I spent some time on medicinal plants and realized that food is medicine, and especially people growing it themselves, and growing it together,” she said. “That’s when I became more interested in horticulture and local farming.”

As she told me this, another student, Elizabeth Prinkey, was listening intently. She is studying horticulture and crop production. In high school, she learned culinary arts and read tracts such as “Fast Food Nation.” After college, “I think I would like to go to countries or regions struggling with food security, perhaps addressing drought-resistant or salt-resistant crops,” said Prinkey, who is 19.

“Everyone has a different story,” said Walsh, “but everyone wants to work outside, and they are entrepreneurs.”

The students took me to see the farmers market on campus and a couple of vegetable gardens. Afterward, Wallis e-mailed me to make sure I understood a key point: She and her fellow students have moved past the initial battle-cry stage of the local and organic farming movement and are now focused on making it work. “We are transitioning to a new phase,” she wrote. “The current problem involves dealing with the practicalities of it: What parts of organic are justified scientifically? What is financially sustainable? What role does food safety play? For me, it comes down to a simple definition of sustainable: The ability to maintain environmental, social and economic aspects of farming.”

Along the way, she learned to drive a tractor.

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