In a scene more akin to Little House on the Prairie than most visions of campus life, Rahul Sharma and Natasha Rooney feed chickens, wrangle rabbits and pull weeds as part of their college experience.
Their little house is a college-owned cottage on the outskirts of Caldwells College of Idaho, and theyre not frontier sodbusters. Theyre sustainability stewards, the heart of an offbeat program entering its third year.
Chosen from about 10 applicants, the stewards get free housing in return for tending the campus organic garden, taking care of small farm critters, and figuring out how to make the house and their lifestyle as ecologically low-impact as possible.
Its a lifestyle job, said Rooney, a history major from Melbourne, Australia, who will be a senior in the fall.
It feels more genuine, said Sharma, a junior fine arts major who hails from Kashmir, India. And we dont have to live in the dorms.
The program began in the summer of 2010 as an outgrowth of the organic garden program the College of Idaho shared with Bon Appetit, the campus food service provider, said Jen Nelson, director of residence life for the private liberal arts college.
We decided the program needed to be more robust, Nelson said.
College President Marv Henberg decided to provide free use of one of the rental homes the college owns just south of campus. The Eco House program has three primary objectives, Nelson said:
Æ Provide community education on such topics as healthy eating and water conservation. Stewards organize programs for Van Buren Elementary School students in the fall, put on Earth Day events and bring produce to the Caldwell Farmers Market.
Æ Challenge students to live as simply and as sustainably as possible. That notion is attractive to those who apply to be stewards, Nelson said: They tend to be students that composted in their dorm room anyway.
Æ Create an opportunity for personal growth and leadership development. Its very self-directed, Nelson said. They just meet with me once a week and the director of food service once a week.
Rooney said she likes the creative flexibility of the position, though both she and Sharma said its a lot of work.
Its hard, but its good, Sharma said.
Seven hens and seven rabbits live on the property, loosely confined in a chicken coop. The chickens easily escape the confines to prowl the property and adjacent lots, making egg collection something of an Easter egg hunt, Sharma said.
Although the students say their neighbors dont object, Nelson said the poultrys free-range rambling will come to an end when the students build a roof for the coop a move she expects this week.
On Thursday afternoon, the hens strutted and clucked and pecked over an array of leftovers their keepers had delivered to the coop, carefully avoiding the many slices of white onion strewn on the ground. Those will end up in the Eco House compost.
So far, Rooney said, tomatoes and celery seem to be the chickens favorites.
The hens were named by previous stewards, but Rooney and Sharma dont call them by name except one.
That light brown one is called Favorite, because shes my favorite, Rooney said. Shes very friendly.
The rabbits were surprise guests in the chicken coop, but the students are happy to keep them around. Sharma notes that they eat weeds, and their manure can be applied directly to plants. Chicken droppings, on the other hand, need to be composted before theyre used as fertilizer.
The stewards eat the eggs and some of the produce, selling some of the harvest to the campus food service.
A small plot hosts strawberry plants, a walnut tree provides nuts and a small orchard of young apple trees is a couple of years away from bearing fruit.
I really enjoy working with these students, Nelson said. I think they, and I, quickly gain respect for our agricultural neighbors in this community. Its very hard work and youre very dependent on the weather and the temperature. You learn to respect the land and the things growing on it.
Sharma and Rooneys stint as stewards began about five weeks ago, and Nelson said each of the three teams so far has brought a different flavor to the project.
Last year, one steward brought a strong outdoor recreation focus, she said, while Sharmas artistic nature casts a fresh light on the notion of repurposing objects.
A potter and photographer, Sharma has begun stacking rocks in front of the house in a sort of free-form sculpture. He contributes to the colleges Student Experience blog, with his first entry declaring, I will post enigmatic statements to intrigue you.
Students have so much enthusiasm, such wonderful energy and ideas, Nelson said.
Examples of bright ideas from stewards that havent come to fruition include getting a goat thats not going to happen, says Nelson and building a greenhouse from plastic bottles, a notion that never got beyond the bottle-collection phase.
Sharma would like to add bees to the menagerie, but acknowledges that his idea is unlikely to gain administrative approval.
Last years stewards tried to move the garden from its spot near the dining hall to the vacant lot next to Eco House. Nelson had high hopes for that idea, but the lots super-hard ground and infestation of goathead burrs took the upper hand. Sharma and Rooney returned the garden to its previous site.
Rooney would like to put native plants on the vacant lot, an idea that Nelson likes.
HEADING OFF THE GRID
Each pair of stewards has worked to reduce Eco Houses power consumption, from hanging clothes to dry to using high-efficiency light bulbs.
We want to be almost off the grid, said Sharma. On days like this, when its warm and it stays light late, we pretty much only use power for two hours a day.
Hed like to get solar panels for the house, and Nelson said a grant program is available for that.
She said shes happy with the sustainability project so far, although bringing in new stewards each year slows the progress a little.
It takes them a while to learn the rhythm, the weeding and composting, how to glean what you need from the garden, she said.
I think weve had some really great successes and definitely some challenges, too. Its definitely in its fledgling state, this whole concept.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447