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On a small, half-acre plot of land just south of Sonoma State University, energy student Jamal Edwards tills a row of black soil moistened from an early spring rain.

Kneeling in the soft earth, he pulls weeds by hand and sows tomato and melon seeds. In a few months, the produce could end up in the salad bar at the SSU student center.

Edwards is part of a group of student farmers that sells its crops back to the school to help pay tuition. He is the recipient of an innovative grant to offset the cost of farming.

For Edwards, the venture allows him to practice his passion while earning extra cash.

"If you don't get your hands dirty once a day, you haven't lived that day," said Edwards, 23. "This gives me a sense of happiness that nothing else can bring."

The student growers program has sprouted from one student's idea.

Three years ago, Associated Students president Mac Hart did an environmental studies research project on student-grown food economies with support from faculty member Laura Watt, the Redwood Empire Rare Fruit Growers Chapter and the Glasmeier Research and Writing Award.

Hart forged a relationship with a land owner near campus, who allowed him to farm a small garden and keep the produce, which he sold back to the school cafeteria for a $150 per week profit. He developed a partnership with the campus chefs who gave him food scraps that he carted off in his bike trailer to use as compost.

In the process, Hart discovered that he needed to have liability insurance in order to sell to the public institution.

Soon, other agriculturally-minded students started farming on other plots in the neighborhood. The most successful was established by Tomio Endo, a co-director of the student growers program. Endo reached out to other students, including Edwards, and invited them to farm on his plot.

As the program grew, the Associated Students launched a $300 grant to cover the budding farmers' insurance cost and ease the burden of entry into commercial farming.

"The program acts to address both community issues and sustainability issues, while at the same time creating opportunities for student development and leadership," Hart said.

The student government organization offers five grants a year. All of the farmers receive a plot in the garden that Hart established.

The farmers have since stopped composting and use no additives in the garden, which is drip-irrigated, said Brandon Sanders, one of the student growers. Since all of the produce goes back to the school, the program promotes healthy, local eating on campus, he said.

"The impact is bigger than any one student," said Sanders, an environmental science student.

Last summer, Sanders made $2,000 selling potatoes, radishes and zucchini to the university. The growers group is looking into establishing an official cooperative, he said, so that the program will last after the participants graduate.

"Students are a very transient group," he said. "We want something that can be passed on."

Edwards has been putting down deeper roots in the community garden. He has planted fruit trees — plum, peach, cherry, persimmon, apple — in the hope that a new generation of farmers will take over stewardship.

Right now, Edwards works in the garden between classes and whenever he has free time, but he wants to grow food full-time some day. He said the grower's grant has helped him hone his green thumb.