Highlands Student Gets Firsthand Organic Farming Experience

Female student testing moisture in garden.

Photo: Margaret McKinney/Highlands University
Highlands conservation management student Karlee Rogers tests moisture and light in soil while interning at V’s Organic Farm in Buena Vista, New Mexico.

Las Vegas, N.M. – A Highlands University conservation management student enjoyed getting her  hands dirty this summer learning about horticulture through an organic farming internship.

Karlee Rogers worked at V’s Organic Farm in Buena Vista, New Mexico, doing everything from sampling and testing soil to harvesting crops and helping build a new greenhouse.

“This has been an incredible opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge in horticulture and organic farming,” said Rogers, a 20-year-old Las Vegas, New Mexico, native. “I learned how to create different healthy environments for plants through natural methods like using chicken manure rather than herbicides and pesticides. I loved it.”

Rogers also learned how to use instruments to measure different soil attributes such as moisture and light.

“I also took soil samples that we sent to a lab for analysis of nutrients like phosphorous that affect a plant’s growth, and prepared spreadsheets for the findings,” Rogers said.

During her internship Rogers helped grow and harvest squash, peas, beets, lettuce, tomatoes, dill and tarragon.

Rogers said she also learned about challenges organic farmers face like the grasshopper invasion that destroyed some of the summer berry crop.

“With the grasshoppers, we experimented with natural methods like using wood ashes, flour and screening,” Rogers said.

She said the internship reinforced the importance of conservation management.

“It also also opened my eyes to career opportunities like working in an industry that grows organic food,” Rogers said.

She said the internship inspired her to also pursue a teaching certificate at Highlands so she can one day teach elementary children how to grow produce in a school green house.

“I want to teach young children the importance of eating healthy natural foods and the excitement of growing produce. Hopefully, they’ll want to grow vegetables at home with their parents,” Rogers said.

She earned her associate degree from Luna Community College and transferred to Highlands this summer for coursework and the internship.

Veronica Serna was Rogers’ mentor at V’s Organic Farms, a 35-acre enterprise on land Serna’s family has farmed for generations. Serna is the only USDA certified produce farmer in the Mora Valley and is a member of the Los de Mora Local Growers’ Cooperative, Inc.

“My goal is to provide our community with healthier food grown locally,” Serna said. “We sell at farmer’s markets and supply grocery stores and restaurants from Mora to Las Vegas, Taos, Santa Fe and Dixon. We are also certified by the food label Animal Welfare Approved to raise range-fed cows and cage-free poultry.”

Serna earned her bachelor’s in business administration and her master’s in counseling from Highlands. She started organic farming in 2011 after retiring from a career as a counselor at Luna.

Serna said Rogers is a quick learner who is passionate about understanding the science behind organic farming and growing produce.

“Karlee is also very inquisitive and an excellent, dependable worker. I enjoyed being her mentor. The partnership with Highlands is wonderful,” Serna said.

Rogers said: “I was lucky to hear about the internship from Monique Esquibel at Highlands and then to have have a mentor as great as Veronica.”

Esquibel is the internship coordinator for Highlands’ Achieving in Research Math and Science (ARMAS) center. Since 2014, dozens of students like Rogers have completed ARMAS internships through its PROPEL grant – Promoting Real Opportunities for Professional Experiential Learning.

“Internships give our students the opportunity to experience the real-world applications for their discipline and explore career options,” Esquibel said. “Internships also give our students a strong competitive edge in the job market and when pursuing graduate degrees.”

Esquibel said outstanding mentors like Serna plant the seed for Highlands’ students to thrive in their career aspirations.

“We’re very grateful to our ARMAS internship mentors,” Esquibel said.

PROPEL is funded through a $249,501 grant from the USDA that that started in 2014 and ends fall semester 2017.