UH Hilo students practice sustainable agriculture in gardens around campus

UH Hilo has three learning gardens on campus where students apply what they are learning in a class on sustainable agriculture.

By Anne Rivera.
This story is part of a series on curriculum and projects at UH Hilo focusing on sustainability issues.

Students gathered in a vegetable garden on campus.
Students in a class on sustainable agriculture gather in one of their vegetable gardens on campus during last semester’s final presentations. In the background are the Student Services and Campus Center buildings. Courtesy photos from Norman Arancon, click to enlarge.

Among the courses at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo that are aimed at helping members of the university and local communities practice sustainability, is a class dedicated to sustainable agriculture (AG 230). Associate Professor of Horticulture Norman Arancon’s sustainable agriculture class teaches the factors and criteria required for any agricultural practice to be classified as sustainable. In conventional agriculture, synthetic inorganic fertilizers and pesticides are used to maintain the farm; the sustainable agriculture course covers organic alternatives.

Norman Arancon
Norman Arancon

Arancon is originally from the Philippines and joined UH Hilo faculty in 2008. He attended Xavier University for his undergraduate degree and later went on to complete his post-graduate degree in agricultural studies in Australia at the University of Queensland. Arancon received his master of science in environmental sciences and his doctor of philosophy in environmental sciences from Ohio State University, where he was a Fulbright Scholar from 1997 to 2000.

Improving the course

Arancon started teaching the sustainability course in 2010 and introduced one major change to the course’s previous format.

Prior to Arancon teaching the course, it was structured as a two-hour lecture class twice a week and was paired with a two-and-a-half-hour lab once a week—during the scheduled lab time, the class would take field trips to local farms.

“Having the same format for every class and seeing the same farms every semester [is monotonous],” says Arancon. “That’s why I introduced learning gardens around campus.”

There are three gardens strategically placed around the UH Hilo campus—there is one in front of Edwin Mookini Library, another around the College of Agriculture building, and one near the Nowelo Bridge.

Students gather around garden filled with leafy greens.
Students in AG 230 gather during final presentations last semester. This garden (above and below photos) fronts the library.

These gardens help students to apply what they are learning in the classroom and in the field. (At right is a video showing the start of the garden by the library in 2012. Accessibility info: there is no narrative in video, just background music.)

Farm field trips are still offered as part of the course and while visiting the farms the students discreetly observe and analyze the farm to see if it meets the sustainable criteria. After their visit, the students evaluate the farming practices in relation to the factors that define sustainability. These factors include being environmentally friendly, economically feasible, socially just, appropriate to the culture in the area in which the farm is located, respect of said culture, holistic signs, and a foundation of total human development. All seven of these factors must be satisfied in order to be truly ecological.

“It’s a very delicate balance and a lot of people abuse the word—but just because it’s environmentally friendly doesn’t mean it’s sustainable,” Arancon explains. “It must be economically viable as well.”

Learning gardens

Arancon says the gardens on campus are a way that students can reconnect with the land and understand how hard it is to start producing food.

“Food is the most intimate thing we put into our body,” he says. “Food is what we are, but now, we don’t even know our food or where it comes from.”

The learning gardens help students to realize that growing food is something to be appreciated because not everyone can do it.

Food from the gardens is distributed in different ways. Every spring there is AG Fair Day where the College of Agriculture introduces the various programs offered at UH Hilo. For this fair, the class harvests products from the garden and follows proper safety protocols and sanitation guidelines so the food can be placed in containers and given away to visitors and students. Donations are usually given for the food, which allows the college to buy more tools and supplies for the gardens.

The main goal of this course is to help students have a different view when they look at plants.

“It’s more than just an understanding of how agriculture can be more sustainable,” Arancon says. “It’s a lifestyle and you can contribute to it in any way that you can.”

The choices made at grocery stores influence agriculture and the ways in which certain plants are raised and harvested—in other words, consumer preference dictates what farmers plant and produce. Arancon says he wants students to realize that consumers have the power to change agriculture. However, in order to dictate what they consume they must be aware of the current practices as well as the options available to them, which this course covers.

A sustainable campus

UH Hilo has a commitment to being a good steward of the environment and seeks to improve efficiency and reduce its ecological impact in ways that are practical. These on-campus gardens use a paper composting system that helps to reach this goal. Additionally, these courses enlighten students on all levels of agriculture and across the sustainability spectrum. Through the combination of education and student/faculty powered projects, UH Hilo is working to fulfill its commitment.

About the author of this story: Anne Rivera (senior, communication) is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories

Also in this series

UH Hilo launches food waste collection program, adding another component to sustainable food system on campus

Energy savings are a top priority at UH Hilo

UH Hilo takes first steps toward a Certificate in Sustainability program

UH Hilo course on climate change challenges students to find solutions

UH Hilo student from Marshall Islands creates performance art about rising sea levels in his homeland

Share this story