A Student Dreams of Kiwis

by Caroline Berens | 1/29/15 10:21pm

Malcolm Salovaara ’17 has been organizing a number of permaculture gardens.

Although the windows reveal the icy, barren scene of a Hanover winter, thoughts of warmer weather and spring sunshine fill the air in the Collis second floor lounge. Six students sit together and ardently plan the extensive fruit-and-vegetable-producing garden that will be planted in a sorority’s yard this spring.

The small group consists of Malcolm Salovaara ’17 — the impetus behind a campus-wide project to implement self-sustaining gardens on the properties of 10 different Greek houses this spring — as well as his scientific expert, Jonah Sternthal ’18 and four members of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority in the Class of 2015.

Salovaara pulls out a hand-drawn blueprint of Kappa’s land and begins adding to the plans with fervor, cross-referencing with Google maps.

Their first major decision? Whether the sorority will choose to grow grapes or kiwis. Salovaara explains the pros and cons of each possibility, weighing which fruit will be the most successful on various parts of the property. Despite the scientific nature of his project and the technical language needed to explain it, Salovaara refrains from being esoteric.

In once instance of some confusion about the difficulty of growing grapes, Salovaara references Italy’s love for wine, explaining that the drink’s popularity in the country is due to the dryness of the land. In rainy Hanover, grapes have a higher probability of rotting, but growing them is not impossible.

Although one of the women makes a note to bring up the grapes versus kiwis decision at meetings, they decide on the latter when Salovaara shows them a picture of kiwi plants’ beautiful foliage. With the aesthetic benefits and wine-making potential of kiwis, combined with grapes’ risk of rotting, it’s a clear victory for kiwis.

Salovaara scribbles a note about the kiwis, seemingly relieved to come to a decision so quickly, while he begins discussing the possibility of growing other fruits — papayas, blackberries, persimmons, pawpaws. It’s not hard to imagine that soon the women could sip smoothies made with fruit grown in Hanover, even in their own backyard.

As the meeting draws to a close, the sisters express how “stoked” they are for the project and their regret that, as seniors, they will only see it in its beginning stages.

“Why will I not be at Dartmouth to see this in 10 years?” one asks.

Salovaara’s eyes enliven at their enthusiasm, and he smiles down at his papers as he organizes them with care. He has three more meetings like this in the next two days, planning potential gardens for Chi Gamma Epsilon and Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternities and Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority.

Salovaara, who is originally from New Jersey, became interested in sustainable agriculture when he worked at the Dartmouth Organic Farm last spring with his friend, Sam Kernan ’14. He first learned about these practices — loosely termed “permaculture” — when a friend sent him a link about the practice when he was in high school.

So what exactly is permaculture? When explaining it to students, Salovaara describes it as a way of creating self-sustaining orchards and gardens. Instead of growing plants that must be replanted every year — called annuals — permaculture involves cultivating plants that live for more than two years — called perennials — including foods like fruits, nuts and leafy greens. Permaculture also includes strategically growing some plants, like flowers, alongside those that produce fruits and vegetables. The goal is for the perennials and other plants to develop synergistic, symbiotic relationships among the plants.

“Permaculture sets up systems that passively accumulate value and fertility naturally,” Salovaara said. “The goal is to create a system unlike a vegetable garden to which, for example, you have to add fertilizer every day.”

Environmental studies professor Andrew Friedland explains that one of permaculture’s most significant benefits is its sustainability.

“Agriculture is one of the most destructive activities in which humans participate,” Friedland explained. “Every time you turn over soil, you’re making it vulnerable to erosion by water and wind, and you’re increasing the amount of carbon that had been buried below the surface, and that might be returned to the atmosphere as CO2.”

Friedland said that anything to reduce energy inputs and disturbance of soil — the expected results of Salovaara’s work — is a “noble goal and worthy pursuit”.

Why then, if permaculture is such a sustainable and beneficial practice, is it not being used on a more massive scale?

Marcus Welker, a PhD student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Dartmouth who is also familiar with Malcolm’s work on the Organic Farm, explains that there are monetary incentives against the practice.

“The yield is lower with permaculture, and there’s also a multi-billion dollar industry associated with making chemicals and pesticides to allow you to grow your fruits and vegetables,” Welker said. “Permaculture is just harder, much like riding a bike is harder than driving a car.”

Friedland also noted that many of the foods we eat, like wheat, corn and soy beans, are annuals, not perennials.

Salovaara, however, is not afraid to devote much of his time to increasing the presence of permaculture on campus. Salovaara’s plan is to plant orchards and vegetable gardens on the properties of three fraternities, six sororities and one co-ed house — but he doesn’t want them to be merely “gardens.”

“I want it to be something like a zen garden with nice smelling things and birds singing that also produces food,” he said.

That’s why when some of the organizations inquired about growing hops — in order to produce beer — Salovaara guided them toward fruits that could be used for wines as well as food.

It’s this vision that Salovaara shared with the members of various Greek houses when he first proposed the idea.

Emily Leede ’15, a member of Alpha Phi sorority, said she was almost immediately convinced.

“I had no idea what permaculture was at first,” Leede said. “But Malcolm was very professional, and within a week of him approaching us we had contacted [Greek Letter Organization and Societies].”

She said that some members of A Phi were quite enthusiastic right off the bat, while others were a little confused, but eventually Malcolm’s charm got more people on board. (She noted that his good looks didn’t hurt.) Now Leede says she and her sisters are looking forward to the “relaxation heaven” Salovaara has described.

Matt Stanton ’15, a member of Sig Ep, noted that the gardens might mark a shift in the current tenor of Greek spaces.

“The gardens are a very wholesome and nurturing idea, in a place that’s normally associated with destruction and negative things,” he said.

John Conley ’15 of Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity agreed, explaining that the benefits extend beyond food and the yard’s enhanced beauty. He thinks that fraternity members will “take pride” in their garden and enjoy its benefits alongside the community.

For Salovaara, who is unaffiliated, Greek houses were a natural choice for the location of the project.

“Some of them own their own land, so there are far fewer administrative hoops to jump through.” Salovaara explained. “And for most members of a Greek house especially, it is exciting and meaningful to do something that will make a difference in the life of a future member of that Greek house in five, 10, 50 or even 100 years.”

This past fall, after getting approval from various Greek houses, Salovaara visited each yard and surveyed the landscapes to plan blueprints. Currently, he is conducting weekly meetings — like the one with Kappa — with each Greek house, where they spend most of the time planning out logistics of the gardens. It won’t be until the spring that they can start planting, and it’ll be a few years before some of them will come to fruition.

Friedland and Welker, however, noted that it may take a while for the plants to become full-fledged gardens.

“It’s possible that 30-50 percent of the plants could die in the first year,” Welker said. “They might have to be replanted.”

Friedland also expressed concern about how well the gardens will be protected, especially at night when people are out.

“I do wonder and worry [the gardens] might get trampled during parties and on weekend nights, when people aren’t as mindful,” he said. “Even the dogs in fraternities could make it difficult to sustain the gardens.”

However, both are highly supportive of Salovaara’s plan.

“Where else, besides on a college campus, can you do things like this?” Friedland said.

Beyond the environmental, community-building and food-producing benefits, Welker speculated it could hold greater significance for Dartmouth’s Greek system overall. With heightened scrutiny on Greek life as a result of Moving Dartmouth Forward, he noted that Salovaara’s plan could become identified as a positive feature of the Greek system.

Salovaara, ever-modest, does not have such grandiose plans.

“It’s not realistic that we will feed all of Dartmouth with these gardens,” he said. “My long-term goal is just to have as many people exposed to [permaculture] as possible. I want it to be something that connects people, something they can discuss and relate on at their 50-year reunion.”

Ultimately, though, Malcolm realizes that people’s motivation for doing this — although most do seem genuinely excited about the prospect of gardening and harvesting food — is more about intangibles.

“At the end of the day, people don’t really care about the plants,” Salovaara said. “They care about members of their houses that will come after them. They want to make a better future for Dartmouth students.”