An Army Vet Finds Rutgers’ Agricultural Programs and a Future in Growing Things
When Matthew Smith got out of the army in 2010, he was sure of two things: His insides hurt and he wanted to help people.
For more than year, Smith, who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, had been struggling with debilitating gastrointestinal pain. While he was in the army, doctors removed his gall bladder, thinking that might help. It didn't. Smith started studying biology at a community college in Arizona, thinking about becoming a nurse. He worked hard, but his passion wasn’t engaged.
Smith's “aha!” moment came during the summer of 2011, when he hiked the Appalachian Trail from southwestern Virginia to the Delaware Water Gap. He had already begun to reinvent himself in ways large and small. He insisted on being called Matthew after five years of being addressed as Smith. On the trail, he left his anti-anxiety medicine behind and traveled light, literally and psychologically. He experimented with herbal medicine and organic food and his gastro problems improved.
He began to see his physical ailments as a symptom, rather than a cause, of his difficulties and food as “an extremely powerful medicine” that helps the body heal itself. “Only through eating healthy food was I able, slowly, to fix my health,” Smith said. When his mother picked him up on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Water Gap, he had already determined to focus on agriculture.
Smith is now one of about 50 agriculture and food systems (formerly agricultural science) majors in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers.
Under Mark Robson, dean of agricultural and urban programs, the curriculum has been modernized and expanded. Twenty new courses have been added, including one in agroecology, in which students learn to farm with a minimum of external inputs, like pesticides and a greater reliance on natural processes.
“You can go to lots of other schools to learn how to grow soybeans or corn,” Robson said. “But if you want to learn scalable farming, if you want to learn how to grow lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables, and if you want to market them directly to the people who eat them, Rutgers is the place,” Robson said. “And we’re in the middle of millions of people. You don’t have many farmers markets in Idaho or Iowa; we have a ton of them here.”
This past fall, Smith worked at Oak Grove Plantation, an organic farm in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. This semester, he’s concentrating on coursework, looking forward to graduating in 2014 and eventually starting his own community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation.
CSA’s are farms in which people buy a share of the crop, paying with money or with labor, and sometimes with a bit of both. The idea behind such farms is to bring more consumers into direct contact with the farmers who grow their food, increasing the incentive for farmers to market, and consumers to buy, locally. New Jersey has nearly 100 such farms, ranging from urban community gardens to CSAs centered on large, established farms.
For Smith the future is still a work in progress, but it has direction. “I don’t want to be just a farmer plowing fields,” he said. “I may do something urban; I’ve been studying a lot about ‘food deserts,’ where people in cities don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy food. I was also thinking of horticultural therapy and medical botany. Every class I take, I keep getting new ideas.”