When Veggies Inspire

Onions tug at Thabisa Mazur’s heart.

Onions are Mazur’s favorite vegetable, but she also loves carrots, beets, brussels sprouts, squash, watermelons or anything she can grow. That’s why an internship at the Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station is something Mazur is treasuring.

For the past year Mazur, a junior in horticulture from Ames, has plotted, planned and planted about an acre of organically grown vegetables.

She started mapping out her garden last winter after Nick Howell (’85 horticulture, ’15 professional ag), Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station superintendent, asked if she would like to be the first to fill a one-year student internship at the research station. She accepted and started the year prepared with schedules and plant material ideas.

“What really is impressive is that her crop is organically grown,” Howell says. “She’s done incredibly well in keeping weeds, pests and disease under control. That’s a difficult challenge.”

On a foggy morning in mid-July Mazur walks through the garden and points out an empty row. “These rows were completely full of plants, but I had problems with cucumber beetles and then we had squash bugs. They killed the plants and I had to remove them.

I definitely learned a lot about the challenges of growing crops organically,” she says.

Mazur was inspired to learn more about growing food while working with her sister at a nonprofit farm in Cedar Rapids.

“They used land in a purposeful way and it was meaningful to me,” Mazur says. “They built a garden in an urban neighborhood and I was captivated by their innovative use of space.”

She came to Iowa State with the goal of learning to grow the best vegetables she could and says it’s the best decision she’s ever made. Mazur received the Edward R. Robinson Scholarship in Horticulture, Robert M. Clark Memorial Scholarship, the Wise Scholarship in Agriculture and grants.

Each Thursday morning during the growing season, Mazur and a crew of students harvested vegetables to be sold outside Curtiss Hall on Friday. When customers asked about the vegetables, Mazur shared recipes and details about each variety.

She also worked with several chefs on campus including Norma Whitt, Iowa State University Knoll chef. Whitt says it’s important to Steven Leath, Iowa State president, and Janet Leath to buy local and support Iowa State students.

“They delivered some gorgeous beets, and the beet greens were some of the best I’ve tasted,” Whitt says. “I just love Thabisa’s enthusiasm and passion for what she is doing—it really shows through in the produce that she brings us weekly.”

The experience has been humbling for Mazur. She’s learned how to work with and lead a team and is thankful for the collaborative effort of her coworkers.

“I had such willing and enthusiastic coworkers to help with the bed preparation, transplanting, endless weeding and harvests. The success of the garden is owed significantly to the people I worked with,” Mazur says.

The Horticulture Station has a supportive environment that Mazur says helped her incorporate her classroom knowledge. Howell helped her with marketing and Brandon Carpenter (’11 horticulture, MS ’14), an ag specialist with the Horticulture Research Station, helped her with the details on planting and field work.

She says both Howell and Carpenter helped her learn to manage an organic garden. They also gave her the creative freedom to plant a wide range of organic and heirloom vegetables.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t get dirt under my nails,” Mazur says. “This is totally fulfilling and I can see myself doing this the rest of my life.”