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.