Unearthing a Secret


The story behind a man, his reputation and a patch of farmland

Bharbi Hazarika / Senior Writer

rt Trese wakes up a little before dawn.

The sun is hardly perched in the sky when he buckles his brown shoes and grabs his red flannel. The tailpipe of his black Nissan truck hisses out smoke as he starts his engine as if to signal the time of the day. Trese makes his way down the 3-mile route from Wonder Hills, about the same time it takes for him to listen to a couple of U2 songs. He drives down the gravel road past Miller’s Chicken and finally arrives at his “sanctuary.”

Trese gets asked often, even by his own wife, why is he always there?

He laughs at the question knowingly that he spends nearly 40 hours a week in his one and a half acres hideout.


The high tunnel at the community garden on March 12.

Trese is an associate professor of environmental and plant biology at Ohio University. But instead of being cooped up within gray walls like his profession demands, he can mostly be found at his eden, the plant biology learning gardens.

The idea behind creating the gardens on West State Street was first conceived by James Cavender, professor emeritus of environmental and plant biology, in the 1970s as a way for students to explore the origins of food.

Throughout the years, foliage piled over the student farm, camouflaging it with the plains until Trese picked up the project 12 years ago to supplement his sustainable agriculture class. In 2014, it became a part of Theresa Moran’s food studies theme in the College of Arts and Sciences. Moran, assistant professor in the college, said her aim to create a comprehensive food studies program prompted the collaboration with Trese and what she considers to be the secret gardens.

The gardens remained unknown to many OU students until its collaboration with the food studies theme. Julie Scott, a junior studying specialized studies in sustainable agriculture and food systems, credits the garden’s elusive personality to its location.

“It’s kind of obscure,” Scott said. “It’s a long walk from campus.”

The gardens primarily remain as an educational resource. But in recent years, it has started producing food for markets on campus. It is not only used by the university, but Kelsey Bryant, graduate assistant at the learning gardens, said several businesses in Athens have started to buy niche items such as fennel from the gardens.

Now, the gardens’ personality and Trese’s reputation have become indistinguishable within the plant biology department. If students can’t find Trese in his Porter Hall office, they know where to look for him.

Tilling the land

owever, finding the gardens in itself is a feat.

In that respect, Trese shares his seemingly hermetic nature with the garden. The facility, which includes a circle garden connected to a high tunnel, hides behind the OU Innovation Center on West State Street. The only visible marker is a poppy-red barn that stands by the gravel road, as if guarding the field.

In the first light of day, Trese rummages through the contents of the barn. His quiet disposition prevails until it’s poked with a question or two about food, and the man opens up like a blossom in spring.

As a thin, pale and shaggy-brown-haired young boy, Trese grew up hungry. He was born in a large family that had just enough food to get by. Every evening at dinner after Trese inhaled his food, the growing boy in him had to come to terms that there wasn’t going to be “more dinner.”

His neighbors introduced him to farming when he was still in high school. Suddenly he was living two lives. He used protractors in school and pitchforks in his backyard.

“Just like that a light went off in my head,” Trese remarked. “I can grow food?!”

The necessity that food created in his childhood set Trese’s frame of mind when he sifted through careers in college and eventually settled as a professor. Now, his duties as an academic revolves around the learning gardens.

“There is just always things to do,” Trese said. “And if there isn’t, I make up something.”

Trese teaches most of his classes within the gardens’ bamboo protected boundaries. The facility has expanded its size, which prompted it to be renamed as the Ohio Student Farm. This semester five students are working at the farm alongside Trese, which includes work/study interns and graduate assistant Bryant.


Dr. Art Trese collects things from “The Red Barn” for his class at the community garden on March 12.

Usually, they configure a list of crops that will be reared. Trese buys most of the plant seeds online by comparing prices and quality. He said he gives plenty of weightage to the organic-certified seal, but he also makes sure they are reasonably priced.

The smallholding is mostly home to vegetables and some small grains, but it additionally grows a variety of perennials, bamboos and berries. Scott, a volunteer at the farm, said Trese is always open to the introduction of new plants and ideas.

In his six-hour-day routine in the farm, the 63-year-old spends it either shoveling or digging the land hoping to find a bounty of ideas buried somewhere in the middle of the dirt. He encourages students to think about cultivation in an innovative manner, which has led several of the volunteers to experiment with different plants and seeds.

Trese’s history with food and reverence for it makes him uniquely capable of heading the gardens, but Scott believes his finest trait is that he “doesn’t pretend to know everything” there is to know about farming.

Sowing the seeds

uch like Trese, each of his students have found a reason in the farm.

As Scott’s fingers sink into the dirt she feels the presence of her predecessors. Naturally, when she needs extra help in tilling the patch of strawberry field, next to the tunnel, she calls for her foremothers.

“It’s magical. I am watching something come from nothing, when a tiny seed just blossoms into this huge bounty. I feel like I am part of a whole circle.”Julie Scott, a junior studying specialized studies in sustainable agriculture and food systems

“Grandma! We are doing this,” she yells, stabbing the stubborn earth with her pitchfork.

For students like Scott, farmwork is sacred.

“It’s magical,” Scott says. “I am watching something come from nothing, when a tiny seed just blossoms into this huge bounty. I feel like I am part of a whole circle.”

Each year, Trese involves his students in farming a spring-summer garden as well as an extensive fall garden.

During June and July, the site is flocked with food studies interns, who are usually recruited from Trese’s sustainable agriculture class. Most crops are sowed in black-ridged reusable containers, which are then left to grow. As soon as the weather warms up, the crops are transplanted to the ground.

For the better part of the year, Trese and the students arrive at the gardens early in the morning. As dew settles on the ground they start unclothing the crops that had been wrapped in a protective covering the previous evening.

When the first light drowns the enclosure at dawn, wide-brimmed hats, closed shoes and slouched backs appear among the rows of crops like creatures coming out from the woods to forage for food. And the process of weeding, harvesting and mulching begins.

Bharbi Hazarika | SENIOR WRITER

Dr. Art Trese checks on some newly sowed seeds in the high tunnel at the community garden on March 12.

Bharbi Hazarika | SENIOR WRITER

Dr. Art Terese supervises students as they work at the community garden on March 12.

Bharbi Hazarika | SENIOR WRITER

Julie Scott, a junior studying specialized studies in sustainable agriculture and food systems, waters some seedlings at the community garden on March 12. Scott is an Intern at the gardens.

Bharbi Hazarika | SENIOR WRITER

Black ridged containers house the seed starters.

Bharbi Hazarika | SENIOR WRITER

Julie Scott, a junior studying specialized studies in sustainable agriculture and food systems, holds wild nettle, a medical plant, at the community garden on March 12. Scott is an Intern at the gardens.

Reaping the harvest

n the days when they sell the produce, students come in early to reap the crops and wash them in the portable white utility sink that is conveniently stationed in the eastern corner of the garden. The cleansed produce are separated into buckets and cardboard boxes and marked before being loaded onto a truck and shipped to the various locations around Athens.

Visiting assistant professor Thomas Stevenson in the department of human and consumer services likes to surprise his students with produce from the garden for his hospitality classes. He said the sight of colorful vegetables in mismatched shapes and sizes coax the students in his classes to inquire about the origins of food.

Where to buy Ohio Student Farm produce:

• Ohio Student Farm, West State Street Research Site

• Atrium Cafe, Grover Center

• Jeff Marketplace

Scott said the surplus is often donated to the Timothy House, a resource for those experiencing homelessness in Southeast Ohio, or is distributed among the interns, students and volunteers.

Trese hasn’t felt the pangs of hunger in quite a while, but he still claims to be “obsessed” with growing food. Mirroring his reverence, his students often end up taking home bundles of leftover jalapenos and root vegetables from the gardens and freeze much of the produce to preserve them.

Like a ritual, Scott yanks out the take-out boxes from her freezer. As the evening rolls around, she thaws the veggies and prepares a mix of oil and herbs in a cast iron skillet over the stove.

In that moment, food becomes spiritual for her.

“There is something very special about eating a meal where all the food is mostly grown by you or people that you know,” Scott said. “And it feels like you’re in the thick of it, like you’re plugged into the essence of life itself.”

Marcus Pavilonis | ILLUSTRATION

Development by: Taylor Johnston / Digital Production Editor

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