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Regional campus gardens educate students while giving back to the community
Southeast instructor Byron McVay teaches a variety of agriculture-based classes at Sikeston Regional Campus and brings 30 years of experience in crop production. Recently, McVay has been using his expertise to pay it forward.
Since 2018, McVay has been working on a series of side-projects: growing and expanding local community gardens based in Sikeston and Kennett regional campuses, as well as the city of New Madrid.
At the Sikeston Regional Campus garden, McVay works on a 12-acre plot, fully equipped with a greenhouse and various forms of farming machinery.
The gardens produce a wide variety of crops including, but not limited to tomatoes, winter and summer squash, legumes, cantaloupe, watermelon, peppers, pumpkins and various flowers.
McVay’s most recent expansion is a developing garden at the Kennett Regional Campus which he said he has been working on over the last year.
At the campus gardens, McVay offers students and anyone interested in gardening the ability to help maintain the area by fertilizing, tilling and working the ground, laying plastic to prevent weeds and planting jiffy pots.
“It's educational from the standpoint of their ability to grow, harvest and process products, as well as giving back to their community,” McVay said. “Most students didn't grow up on a farm, so this gives them opportunities and skills like getting on a tractor and practical training.”
McVay added there are also two internship opportunities offered for agriculture students at the regional gardens.
McVay said his most recent initiative is incorporating ‘cole crops’ to the gardens.
“Cole crops are foods like broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts, and they work in cold climates,” McVay said. “This is an important development especially for struggling community members because sometimes people can’t afford to buy a freezer or small refrigerator, and this can assure them that there will be other fresh foods nine or 10 months a year, and it even helps them avoid processed food.”
He said he was inspired to embark on this passion project through his care for the community.
“It's important to me because I’m an alumnus — I want to give back to the university for the opportunities they provided me, and I've seen a major need for the people who are hungry in the area, so it was a chance for me to give back to the community,” McVay said. “I just like to train people how to feed themselves.”
McVay said the gardens are a team effort incorporating groups and organizations within the community. Organizations such as The Boy Scouts of America and local churches volunteer to deliver the garden’s food production to those in need such as the disabled, older adults and less fortunate in Southeast Missouri.
“I do it because, well, people say, ‘Do it till’ it hurts;’ I say, ‘Do it till’ it feels good,’” McVay said.
As a way to bring the community together, McVay will host an open house at the Kennett campus with food and local entertainment on May 6 to inspire community members to get involved in the program and maintenance of the gardens in the summer.