Harvest Festival yields crops and crowds


From the smell of fresh herbs to the sounds of laughter and local musicians, crowds of students and community members wandered through the Panther Plot at the UNI Harvest and Local Food Festival on Thursday, Aug. 29.

The festival included free food featuring fresh ingredients from the student garden, booths highlighting environmental groups on and surrounding campus and live music from Hummingbird Horizon. 

University Sustainability Director Eric O’Brien commenced the event by thanking the student gardeners and volunteers who maintained the garden over the summer. The volunteers from AmeriCorps Green Iowa worked over 1,200 hours in the garden while two student gardeners worked 673 hours. At the peak of the season, the garden produced around 600 pounds of tomatoes monthly and over 4,200 pounds of produce during the summer months. 

This year’s Harvest Festival is unique in its focus on local food. The Panther Plot partners with local businesses to buy their produce, an aspect of the garden that was highlighted with this festival.

“We work on the front end before we even get to planting [by partnering] with local businesses,” said O’Brien. “We make sure that everything we’re growing here, we are growing it for a reason, it is going to be used by someone so we won’t have to waste.”

As the advisor to the Green Project, a campus organization in charge of caring for the Panther Plot garden, O’Brien has been involved in the planning of Harvest Festival for all seven years. He explained that the garden started as a fully student-run space purely out of interest, and then O’Brien stepped in to help manage the plot about halfway through the first year when he noticed the students were struggling to keep up with maintaining the weeds.

Ana Davis and Autumn Boettger, last summer’s student gardners, both said they enjoyed their time working in the garden.

“It’s so cool to see the produce go to food banks and people on campus,” said Davis, a philosophy major. She also said she loved learning to reconnect with and appreciate the earth.

“I can stop at Jimmy John’s and know that the tomatoes on the sandwich are from me and this garden,” said Boettger, a political science major. She also mentioned that it was nice to see how much of the garden is interconnected with the community.

Another facet of the Harvest Festival took place at the Creekside Harmony Garden, where tours were being given by Brenda Sevcik, who is majoring in music education and music performance. The garden works to incorporate purple varieties of plants and vegetables as a symbol of school spirit. This garden also included a “Pizza Bed,” which includes all produce that would be on a pizza such as garlic, oregano, basil, tomatoes, peppers and the like. 

Katy Larson, a return attendee of the festival, loved that the event “shows the fruit of a lot of peoples’ labor — literally and figuratively.” Larson also said that being attending UNI’s Harvest Festival was a great way to encourage healthy eating and being active outdoors, as well as a perfect opportunity to sample tasty food.

The festival also presented the opportunity for involvement and allowed people to understand and appreciate where their food comes from, as stated by Jodie Huegerich, a full-time employee at the Center for Energy and Environmental Education.

Those interested in the Green Project or getting involved with similar volunteering opportunities can contact Eric O’Brien at ​[email protected]​.