A space for community – The SZIA Agroecological Garden of MATE


News | Higher education

An interview with project coordinator Maria Fernanda Ramos Diaz

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Hungary in April of 2020, hundreds of internationals students of the Hungarian University of Agriculture and Life Sciences – MATE (formerly known as Szent Istvan University) were stuck at the dorm in Gödöllő for the summer. This is when the “International Students Community Garden” emerged as student-based initiative to ease the physical, emotional and economic impacts of the lockdown through the creation of an agroecological garden. The project has become a success and since then has grown to a complex program at the university. We asked the project’s initiator, Maria Fernanda Ramos Diaz, an Ecuadorian PhD student at MATE on the evolution of the garden from the initial idea to the recent developments.

Tell us a little bit about yourself! Why did you choose Hungary for your studies?

I came to Hungary almost five years ago when I started my master's program in rural development at Szent István University with the help of Stipedium Hungaricum scholarship. I found Hungary very attractive, it has an interesting culture and a very different language. After finishing my Master’s, I decided to stay to do a PhD at the doctoral school of Regional Sciences with a focus on the social aspects of agroecology and food systems.

How did the idea of the International Students Garden start? What were the first steps to make?

I was always interested in agriculture as I am passionate about the power of growing your own food, but I never had the chance to have my own garden here in Hungary. When the lockdown was announced in early 2020, and the international students were stuck in the dorm in Gödöllő, the first thing that came to my mind, that this is a great opportunity to start a garden. The university was open to my idea, and we received a 400 square meter field from the Horticulture Institute. Lot of students were interested in joining our initiative, as in that stressful time of uncertainty doing something meaningful and being part of a community was very important for many of us.

What was the concept of the garden? Which principles were key in the realization of the project?

We have and agroecological garden, which means we grow the vegetables in a sustainable way, completely organic, without any fertilizer. The principles of agroecology also involve the social part of the food system, production in harmony with nature, conscious consumers and food sovereignty. Everyone was working in the garden on a volunteer basis.

At the beginning the main goal was to grow food for the students who were working in the garden. We had a great variety of vegetables: 68 varieties of plants of 42 different species. Beyond the regular vegetables, like potato or pepper, we also grow a lot of new crops for example rainbow carrots, which many students did not know before. When we realized we had more food that we needed we started a weekly market outside the dorm for students and for university staff. The market has become a very popular community event, where people from different cultures came together. We also organized cooking events, when we tried out the dishes of various countries the students came from. These events really strengthened the community, which was one of our main goals.

How did the project evolve? What are the recent developments regarding the garden?

When we started the garden, it all developed very organically. As the project grew, we needed to create a more professional system for work, student involvement and cooperation. We launched a structured voluntary training program based on the principles of agroecology. It is an experience learning program, with three months commitment, where students acquire leadership and organizational skills while learning about food and farming issues.

We have received support from various organizations. The university provided us a new place on campus, a lot closer to the dorm and helped us with the logistics. They also connected us with the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency – TIKA, which equipped us a basic infrastructure, such as the irrigation system, a cooling room, a garden and kitchen tools, so now we can organize cooking classes for the students. We also started a cooperation with the Diverzitás foundation, a local NGO in social farming, that gives us technical support, and access to the local community in Gödöllő, which is very important to us.

What are the main impacts of the garden?

There were many social benefits of this project, like strengthening the community, learning each other’s culture, and being more conscious about consumption. Students learned many new skills and gained new experience which they can take to their homes and start their own initiatives. Many of them started their own gardens or joined communities because of this experience. They have become more conscious about the food they eat, and now they have a higher awareness about food waste, because after working in the garden they understand how much work it takes to grow all these vegetables.

The garden also has a great environmental impact; we got many pollinators and we improved the soil through sustainable practices. We also had a very important economic outcome from this project. We grew about 800 kilos of good quality food worth of 1 million HUF in the period from April to November 2020, that students could save from their own budget.

Will the project continue? What are the main goals right now?

The aim is to establish a strong program, that can be taken over by other students later on. We want to continue the leadership program, to ensure a practical placement for students, and also include more Hungarian students. It is not just about growing food. My intention is to create this garden as a space for research, a space for community and a space for understanding food and farming issues.

What is the biggest outcome for you personally from the garden?

The garden for me is a platform for creating awareness about environmental issues and the challenges the food system and agriculture are facing. This is also a form of being rebellious, to step out and as a community take ownership of our own food system, to be resilient and achieve food sovereignty. This is very powerful, and it also motivating for the others.

To me it is very important that we created a community and learnt more about each other’s culture. There were beautiful moments which we all shared that gave purpose and inspiration for the students. And this is what we all needed during these times.

Last modified: 21-02-2022