By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Nathan Cooper was back on the southwest Minnesota plains, where farming engaged four generations of his family, and didn’t think he’d ever return to the Arizona desert, where he graduated with a business degree from Grand Canyon University in 2019.
But after GCU President Brian Mueller hatched the idea for a community garden to provide food for the neighborhood and asked Colangelo College of Business Dean Dr. Randy Gibb if he knew any farmers, Cooper soon was asked to return.
By September, he was leading the expanded idea of Canyon Urban Farms. Its centerpiece is a small plot north of Agave Apartments on campus. The farms' manager already has harvested 40 pounds of squash that GCU donated to Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest on Thursday.
"LSS-SW is incredibly grateful for the donation, which will help many refugees that may not have had the means to buy fruits and vegetables," said Ruth Escobar, Shelter/Donations & Volunteer Coordinator. "These families can range anywhere from 3-9 people per household, so they are always thankful to have fresh food available — especially during times such as these."
The evolving farm will eventually grow more than three dozen types of vegetables by this fall, when it doubles to a half acre. The farms also include movable garden beds outside Canyon 49 Grill and inside Building 66 – 32 of which are sponsored by partners in Canyon Ventures.
It will make produce available to neighbors, to the refugee community through organizations such as Lutheran Social Services, and to Canyon 49. A farmers’ market is also in the plans, in addition to making produce available to immigrants launching restaurants.
“It’s a healthy alternative to have (produce) at their fingertips instead of going to (a fast-food restaurant) for a quick meal for dinner,” Cooper said. "I like the quote, 'The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.' Think about it. What you put into yourself directly affects your body. If you are putting in things that slow you down, slows your brain, it’s not healthy. To be able to offer a healthy alternative is really helpful.”
Cooper was thrilled to be back for such a worthwhile project. Although large-scale corn and soybean farming goes back generations in his family, he was inspired by a local organic farmer that he worked for in his hometown who showed him that it's also possible to grow organic crops on a larger scale. That challenged him to do it for GCU.
With a photograph of his great grandfather hung in his office, he plotted a farm that offered new challenges.
He fought stubborn Bermuda grass that had deeply rooted as he tilled up ground that was so different to him.
“The soil is more compact than we thought, coming from Minnesota, where everywhere is just beautiful, nutrient-rich soil. Down here, you really have to work for it,” he said.
“I love every moment of every obstacle. It’s a huge learning curve every day with the difference in growing from Minnesota to Arizona, everything from the seasons to the soil to the amount of rainfall.”
Cooper launched plans to build the soil with nutrients from compost bins, which will be fed by food waste from campus markets and restaurants, and grass and tree clippings.
“My goal is to have enough waste for compost for nutrient-rich soil for the garden and also be able to offer compost to the community,” he said.
Education is another component of the farm. The goal is to empower community members, students and staff to practice sustainable gardening methods by giving them knowledge, resources and support to grow their own.
“The project has an overwhelming ability to impact the community in multiple ways,” he said. “Nowadays, more people care where their food is coming from, and my goal is to not only be able to provide produce but also teach them how to grow their own.”
The farm will be a kind of learning laboratory, too.
He hopes to include many of the colleges within the University, such as business students who could help with farmers’ markets, engineering students to work on sustainable techniques and education students who could create curriculum. He also has assisted at Westwood Elementary, where GCU students and staff helped build a garden and establish a curriculum for the Habitat for Humanity project.
Already, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, squash, watermelon, zucchini and okra are growing at Canyon Urban Farms, but as the fall planting season kicks in by late August more leafy greens, herbs, cauliflower, carrots, bok choy and beets will be planted.
“My goal is for it to be completely organic, no till and 100% sustainable,” Cooper said. “Growing an organic urban farm is feasible because less space means we are able to handpick weeds to control them, but we are also able to use worm tea, worm castings sourced from an Arizona worm farm along with compost to get the nutrients we need in order to grow healthy, fruitful plants.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.