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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | Last updated: 4:01pm

Externship program teaches students sustainability, urban farming



Several students are working this summer as “externs,” helping communities across the state with various sustainability projects.

The term “externship” came from a play on words created by the Arizona Cooperative Extension and the fact that students are getting hands-on experience outside in the field, said Mark Apel, an extension agent in Cochise County.

The program is designed to give students from the University of Arizona an opportunity bring the “expertise of sustainability off campus and into our communities,” Apel said.

The program also gives preference to students who live in the communities they serve because they know and understand the community, he added.

Erika LaPlante, an environmental science senior and extern for Tucson Village Farm, said she has learned the importance of community through the opportunity.

“As a student at the University of Arizona, my life was so limited and here [on the farm], I’ve gotten to meet so many more people and so many more families and I really feel part of the community,” LaPlante said.

This is LaPlante’s second year externing at Tucson Village Farm where she helps with a two-week farm camp. She teaches children about different health foods such as greens and dairy and how to grow food and prepare it.

The program is a “whole seed to table program,” according to 4-H Youth Development Assistant Agent Elizabeth Sparks.

“The Tucson Village Farm is an urban farm for kids, by kids. Kids are out here planting, harvesting, tilling the land, and then we teach them how to eat what was grown,” Spark said. “They harvested potatoes and made potato salad. They harvested wheat and now they’re making bread.”

The Tucson Village Farm also offers “you-picks” after each harvest, where the community is allowed to come to the farm and pick vegetables for a cheaper price than what they would pay at a grocery store. This offers the community healthy, inexpensive options and provides the Tucson Village Farm a source of revenue. Excess food is donated to the St. Mary’s Food Bank.

The farm began in January 2010. Sparks said she wanted to bring kids to the farm to teach them sustainable ways to grow and make their own food. Directors quickly realized they needed help with farming and food production, so they applied for assistance from the Green Fund.

The Green Fund, according to Apel, is a program dedicated to offering sustainable solutions to the UA. The Green Fund Committee, made up of 10 UA students advised by faculty, decides where to allocate $400,000 raised by tuition fees for the Green Fund.

While most externs come from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, several students have majors ranging from environmental science to public health and nutrition.

One extern at the Tucson Village Farm is designing a “fuel from the farm” sports nutrition program. Other externs around the state help with programs ranging from community compost to horticultural videos for small-scale vegetable production.

Some projects include a garden at Bisbee High School, irrigation systems in Maricopa County and a community farm in Safford.

This summer, there are 11 externs working seven different counties.

“The best part about these externships, is that students actually take leadership roles in the projects and come away with much more valuable experience,” Apel said.

For some students, these externships also offer a chance for growth and a sense of community.

“I have grown in myself and in my major and what my interests are,” LaPlante said. “It helps me feel a sense of community here in Tucson that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way. We’re a family here at the farm and it’s worth it.”


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