Panther Plot pauses, possible return

Conversations regarding the Panther Plot’s future are ongoing as NISG president Samantha Bennet gauges interest.

SARA QUALLEY

UNI has decided to discontinue the Panther Plot student-run garden located south of campus on College Street.

UNI Presidential Scholars opened the Panther Plot in 2013 “to allow for local food growth while also providing students the opportunity to gain experience working in horticulture and food sciences,” according to a UNI STEM article about the garden. Panther Plot produce has been sold to UNI dining services and local restaurants such as Farm Shed and Rudy’s Tacos. It has also been donated to the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. A student organization called Green Project UNI managed the garden.

Ana Davis, a first-year graduate student in the mental health counseling program, ran the Panther Plot during the summer of 2019, overseeing students and Americorps volunteers.

She explained that a lot of work goes into the Panther Plot. Gardeners till, plan planting patterns and spend hours watering, composting, planting, weeding and harvesting. Vegetables, herbs and pollinator plants line the garden beds.

“It is a greenspace on campus for all people to appreciate,” Davis wrote in an email to the Northern Iowan. “There are walkways and benches all throughout the garden to encourage people to come in, relax, and enjoy an outdoor getaway.”

Davis heard about the Panther Plot from her friends Lily Conrad and Gabi Ruggiero, who’ve also managed the garden.

“I have a deep-seated passion for environmental welfare and was taking classes called Environmental Ethics and Introduction to Sustainability the year before I took the position,” Davis said. “In the course of those classes, I decided to put my action where my passion was and to find a way of becoming more involved in the practical side of environmental work.”

Volunteers have dedicated themselves to the garden even during difficult times. When campus shut down due to the pandemic, Panther Plot volunteers didn’t have access to the campus greenhouse where the garden seeds are started each year.

“With everyone working to create safe guidelines for campus involvement, the garden didn’t get its normal start,” Davis said. “Fortunately, in the early summer months of 2020, Americorps volunteers took over the garden and maintained the land. They did a great job keeping the spirit of the garden alive in a difficult situation.”

Michael Hager, senior vice president for Finance and Operations at UNI, said the Panther Plot is closing because it hasn’t proven to be sustainable.

“Despite the good intentions of people over multiple attempts, after seven years the space has never been able to take off as a self-sufficient operation,” he wrote in an email. “The garden has needed staff oversight and university resources to remain viable. UNI has tried a number of initiatives to increase student involvement, none of which have had lasting results.”

The Panther Plot isn’t linked to an academic program, and most work for the garden occurs during the summer while there are few classes and students on campus. The garden also lacks a student leadership model since most volunteers only remain for 1-2 years.

Hager said that students who are interested in gaining gardening experience have alternative options, such as volunteering for the Cedar Falls community garden or the Creekside Harmony Garden at UNI.

Samantha Bennett, a junior actuarial science major and President of NISG, is advocating to keep the garden open. Bennett learned about the Panther Plot during her freshman year while attending a tabling event hosted by Green Project UNI as a way to advertise their annual Harvest Festival.

“It couldn’t have been a more picturesque introduction to the Panther Plot – the sun was out, there was live music, yummy food made from the harvested produce, and the fence surrounding the garden was lined with sunflowers that were in full bloom,” Bennett shared in an email. “It couldn’t have looked any prettier, and I fell in love with the plot immediately.”

Her appreciation of the garden grew as she learned more about it and spent time there. She believes UNI is lucky to have a resource like the Panther Plot.

“It has truly remarkable potential to help teach students about food sovereignty, and to help combat food insecurity within our community,” Bennett said.

Bennett stated that conversations regarding the garden’s future are ongoing. She has reached out to a number of campus groups to gauge interest in the Panther Plot.

“Our hope is that we can find a sustainable model for the garden to operate on,” she said. “We are still collaborating to figure out what that looks like.”