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The Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT) School of Culinary Arts in Okmulgee is producing world-class chefs and service managers – all while keeping an emphasis on agriculture.

“It’s very important to know where your food is coming from, and people are very involved in that idea right now,” says Julie Byers, one of the culinary instructors at OSUIT School of Culinary Arts. “It’s important to know how it is raised and the freshness of your product.”

Byers works under Dean Gene Leiterman, who has been at the school for about a year and a half. Leiterman is a self-taught pastry chef by trade and says that as the technical branch of OSU, OSUIT shares its rich agricultural history.

“One thing that students are lacking today are food memories,” Leiterman says. “They don’t have that experience of growing up on a farm or milking cows, and we thought there was an opportunity to train chefs on where their food comes from.”

One way that goal is being accomplished is through a newly introduced aquaponics course. Byers teaches the course, and recently took her students on a field trip to a hydroponic farm in Tulsa, Scissortail Farms, to show them the opportunities involved within the industry and local food.

Photo courtesy of OSUIT

A hydroponic farm grows plants without using soil, instead exposing the roots to nutrients through a water solvent. Aquaponic farms raise fish as well, and the nutrients produced by the fish’s waste are used to fertilize the plants.

OSUIT School of Culinary Arts recently built an aquaponic garden studio at the school, and the first class took place in September 2017. “We set up a grow space that we call the Garden Studio,” Leiterman says. “We wanted it to achieve many different things – not only host specific coursework, but also be able to have small meals or luncheons within the studio to support school initiatives.”

The Garden Studio houses zip-grow farm walls, which include 16 vertical columns that grow hydroponic lettuces and herbs. There’s also an aquaponic section with 14 tilapia and two different types of aquaponic beds. Students currently grow eight different varieties of herbs and eight different varieties of lettuces, as well as microgreens for use at the school’s dining rooms.

“We have two real dining rooms that are open to the public,” Byers says.

Guests can visit Wednesday through Friday and enjoy meals prepared by students in the buffet class and service from diningroom-management students.

Byers says the school also has plans to build an outdoor garden in the future to grow certain flowering plants including tomatoes and melons that require more space.

Leiterman says the overall goal at the school is to craft professional chefs with a broad range of knowledge, and they’re always looking for more ways to achieve that, whether through new courses or real-life experiences.

“We’re always trying to give students more options,” Leiterman says. “We want to engage industry partners and restaurateurs, and give students more opportunities to visit farms so they can learn about sustainability and artisan foods.”

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