OPN Connect Newsletter 167 · May 21, 2020

Learning on the Farm

Professor Lee Altier has been working in farming for nearly four decades. With three degrees in horticulture, including a PhD, and 25 years teaching at the College of Agriculture at Chico State University, he’s a veteran vegetable grower. 

So it makes sense that when some Chico State students were interested in starting a vegetable program at the school in 2006, they decided to approach Altier. “[They] asked me why we weren’t growing vegetables at the university farm,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, it’s mostly just [because of] the work [involved in] producing and marketing them.’” Yet despite the effort it required, the students were still interested in the project, so they, along with Altier, began the process of fundraising and getting approval from the university.

Misionero March 2023

Professor Lee Altier, College of Agriculture at Chico State University

Within about two years, Altier and the students had acquired the funds they needed and were allotted a one-acre site for vegetable production. They were able to get it certified organic right away because the land had previously been used to produce organic dairy silage for the university’s organic dairy farm.

“[We got certified] to set an example—to demonstrate to students that we were interested in organic production,” says Altier. “Also, we use [the farm] as an important outdoor classroom site. … A lot of students visit it, so it gives us an opportunity to talk about the methods we use for managing pests and managing soil health, [such as] crop rotation and insect population.” 

Vitalis March 2023

Organic Vegetable Project (OVP) at Chico State University

Altier and the students planted their first crops in the spring of 2008, and the farm has since grown to three acres, with the possibility of further expansion in the future. The Organic Vegetable Project (OVP), as the farm is known, grows more than 50 varieties of produce, mostly vegetables, but melons are in the mix too (and pomegranates if you include the hedgerows). The harvest is sold to campus dining services as well as via CSA, and any unsold produce is donated to the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry, a campus resource for students in need.   

Biodiversity, including pollinator health, is something that Altier is very passionate about. “Right from the beginning, we started a very diverse hedgerow around the perimeter of the field,” he says. “And, in fact, we even have rows of native plants going through the field to maintain habitat and a large population of beneficial insects.” The farm also has a “bee resort,” a large wooden structure with tons of drilled holes, where solitary native bees (who nest alone rather than in hives) like to lay their eggs.

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Organic Vegetable Project (OVP) at Chico State University

In addition to producing food and serving as an outdoor classroom, the OVP is involved in several research studies. Since 2010, it’s been the site of a number of variety trials, in which various vegetable varieties that are not commonly grown in the Chico area are test-planted in order to identify some new crops to introduce into the regional market.

The project found that a type of edamame called Giant Midori performed very well in terms of yield as well as in appearance and taste. It also identified the Sugarsnax 54 carrot as an excellent variety for flavor and sweetness and the Baltimore variety as a good option for high-yield, large-sized carrots that are resistant to cracking. The Organic Vegetable Project shares its variety trial results at public field days and workshops on the farm and is currently working on creating a pamphlet that describes the best varieties the project has identified thus far.

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OVP Produce

The OVP is also involved in a couple of research projects in collaboration with Chico State’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems. One is supported by a Conservation Innovation Grant (from the National Resource Conservation Service) and is looking at no-till/minimal-till techniques and their effects on soil structure, fertility, and carbon sequestration. It is being undertaken in collaboration with UC Davis and several California farms—Full Belly Farm, Park Farming Organics, Phil Foster Ranch, and T&D Willey Farms.

The other research project is supported by a grant from the California State University Agricultural Research Institute and is examining the effects of no-till methods on nutrient density, weed control, and crop profitability.

Professor Lee Altier, College of Agriculture at Chico State University

“Our concern, of course, is really ultimately soil health,” says Altier. “It’s been very well documented that no-till agriculture has benefits in terms of building up organic matter [and] helping promote good water-holding capacity. There’s also interest in what it’s doing to the microbial populations—that no-tillage may promote a higher population of fungal organisms that can develop mycorrhizal relationships with the plants where they help with the nutrient uptake and better crop yields.”

Both projects are in the relatively early stages, so no official results have yet been released. As part of these projects, the OVP has been experimenting with mowing and roller-crimping cover crops for in-situ mulch production. Altier expects the first of the OVP vegetable crops—a group of brassicas—to be analyzed for nutrient density this fall.

One of the most important aspects of the Organic Vegetable Project is community outreach. A Specialty Crop Block Grant (from the USDA and California Department of Food and Agriculture) allowed OVP to host numerous workshops over several years that taught people not only good organic farming and gardening practices but food processing and preserving methods as well.

Organic Vegetable Project (OVP) at Chico State University

More recently, Altier has become very interested in horticultural therapy, and he’s started offering a course on the subject—and hopes to create a certificate program in the near future. “Plants can be highly beneficial for not just food production but also for the people who work amongst the plants,” Altier explains. “[People gain] physical and mental benefits from just the activity of being with plants … as well as the pleasure of seeing the plants responding to [their] care.”

With the help of Chico State’s Student Veteran Association, the OVP recently completed installing some wheelchair-accessible raised beds at the edge of the farm that will soon be filled with various medicinal plants. “We’re looking forward to having groups coming out there to work in these raised beds with the idea of promoting workshops and activities that are for the community that are therapeutic,” says Altier. “To me, it all contributes to a more holistic perspective on what a healthy community looks like—with local sources of food [and] diverse opportunities for people to be involved with mentally and physically beneficial activities. To me, it all fits together very well.”

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