OSU students get their hands dirty for lesson in garden soil

CORVALLIS — James Cassidy didn't let the group of students who gathered at Oregon State University's Organic Growers Club farm Sunday morning simply listen to him lecture about the sand, silt and clay in the garden's soil.

He made them put their hands to the ground and feel it.

"Listen to it," Cassidy instructed, running a handful of soil through his own hand. "That's clay."

The 13 students taking part in Cassidy's hands-on lesson were completing their community service for Geosciences 300.

The course requires students to work in groups of six on one of a variety of projects in the community, from removing English ivy at parks around Corvallis to repairing the Sulfur Springs Trail to creating a public service announcement for OSU's KBVR-FM.

Cassidy, faculty advisor of OSU's Organic Grower's Club and an instructor in OSU's crop and soil science department, used the opportunity to teach the group about organic farming.

He first gave them a tour of the farm, located just east of the Willamette River on Highway 34, discussing soil along the way.

"Organic agriculture is all about soil," Cassidy said, who's worked with students from GEO 300 classes every term for nearly five years.

About 280 students from a variety of majors are enrolled in the three sections of GEO 300 this term, which is typical, said instructor Steve Cook. He has been teaching the class for about 14 years, and reworked the syllabus to add the community service component four years ago.

A few weeks before the start of each term, Cook makes contacts throughout the community to ask for service projects. The first week of class, students form groups and pick a project, then give a presentation about the work they've done to the rest of the class at the end of the term.

"It's been received remarkably well by students," Cook said over the phone Wednesday.

Jodi Pierce, a senior at OSU enrolled in GEO 300, gardens at home and signed up for Sunday's project at the farm since her plants "keep dying," and plans to use some of the lessons in organic farming, which she's never tried before.

"It's really neat," she said.

Pierce joined the group for the main activity: using pitch forks and knives to remove quack grass, a non-native weed that must be removed by hand from the farm four to five times a year.

While about half the students used the forks to dig into the soil, the other half got on their hands and knees to pull up the rope-like weeds. Right along side them with his hands in the dirt, Cassidy instructed them to forget the rain and the mud and to simply dig in.

"The bath you have later will be glorious," he said.

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