Graduate merges passions for teaching, farming into personal mission
By Nicole Geary
Bethany Kogut didn’t follow the usual path for an elementary education major at Michigan State University.
Along with going into schools and classrooms, her journey took her into greenhouses, farms—and the life of a successful entrepreneur.
She is the co-founder and CEO of the first MSU-affiliated, student-run business, Land Grant Goods.
Over her four years at MSU, this enterprise has grown from a side project creating tea blends from surplus herbs grown on campus to a full-scale company producing a line of products including honey and jam. Their products are available online, through multiple vendors and in every hotel room at the MSU Kellogg Center.
When Kogut graduates this week, she will step down from her leadership role with Land Grant Goods and hand off those responsibilities to current and up-and-coming students who share a commitment to ethical, sustainable practices in agriculture and business.
She plans to start a graduate program in Environmental Conservation Education this fall in New York City. There, she will continue merging her passion for environmental justice with the places where learning can be most fruitful: schools.
For Kogut, everything roots back to education.
“To me, being an entrepreneur means to educate the future and impact the future,” she said. “Through the work we’re doing, we’re educating the future about their food systems and about their purchasing power.”
READY TO LEARN
When Kogut started college, she had never grown anything. Her first weekend at MSU, she found herself feeding organic pigs. Soon after that, she started volunteering in the Bailey GREENhouse and Urban Farm in the Brody Hall Complex.
The greenhouse is part of the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment (RISE), a living-learning community focused on sustainability and environmental stewardship.
Laurie Thorp, director of RISE, was so impressed with Kogut’s skills as a teacher and leader, that she offered her a paid position on the team.
Thorp later made Kogut the farm manager, which she did while juggling her time as an Honors College member, education student and resident assistant living among fellow RISE members.
“I came to depend on Bethany to assist with building a safe, inclusive community to support academic success,” Thorp said. “She has a keen interest in communities and how individuals grow into contributing members of these communities.”
Meanwhile, Kogut was a member of another impactful community: The Urban Educators Cohort Program (UECP). UECP immerses a group of first- and second-year College of Education students in courses and field experiences to help them understand, and prepare to work in, society’s most under-resourced settings.
She credits the cohort, particularly her TE 250 class taught by Alyssa Dunn, with opening her eyes to white privilege and other issues of social and educational equity.
Her mom asked what she learned while picking her up after freshmen year. Kogut summed it up: “Racism exists and Gushers are bad for you.”
UECP and RISE had shown her that both our food and education systems aren’t always set up to promote health and justice for everyone on the planet.
She had begun to see the world differently. But, more importantly, she began to see what in the world she wanted to change.
“Social justice is something we interact with every day, whether we know or not,” said Kogut, who also has a minor in Environmental Studies and Sustainability. “It’s the same with food. Students need to know their food is impactful in their daily life.”
PREPARED TO LEAD
By the time MSU Vice President Vennie Gore heard about the Bailey Tea Project, the tea bags created by Kogut and fellow greenhouse worker Jorhie Beadle (B.S. ’15, Horticulture) were already being distributed inside Kellogg Center and gaining popularity. Gore offered the group start-up funds and in early 2017, Land Grant Goods officially launched.
The herbs are carefully picked, dried, blended into teas and packaged by a growing group of student employees, which now includes more than a dozen interns handling everything from sales to new product development. The team makes the jam and honey inside an organic-certified kitchen trailer located at Student Organic Farm.
It has not been easy to manage competing schedules and conflicting ideas, Kogut says.
“We’re not trying to figure out how we’re going to make more money, but instead we are trying to figure out how to educate students so they can run a small business, so they can learn to farm and create these products,” she said.
Learning through experience is what drives not only her approach to Land Grant Goods but what carried her through college, from spending time in a variety of K-12 classrooms to working on a farm in Italy one summer.
It’s also what she hopes to instill in urban schools around the country by studying and promoting the power of school gardens.
“School gardens are underutilized spaces where teachers can integrate curriculum in any realm. It’s not just science and photosynthesis,” she said, noting potential garden-based lessons that integrate mathematics, literacy and even socio-emotional skills. “Students can wonder out there. I want to make sure they have the opportunity to explore what’s in their world.”
The concept of “edible education,” or tying agriculture into the classroom is a growing movement across the country, especially in urban areas that are lacking access to healthy food.
Kogut hopes to engage in school garden projects in NYC while attending New York University. She eventually plans to return to MSU to complete her teaching internship and become certified.
Sonya Gunnings-Moton, associate dean in the College of Education and director of UECP, said Kogut is well prepared to make an impact as both an educator and environmentalist.
“As a member of the Urban Educators Cohort Program, Bethany consistently demonstrated her passion for assisting and empowering marginalized populations,” she said.
“We are excited for the direction Bethany’s interest and preparation will take her, as she continues to demonstrate one of the core values of our program … recognizing the true potential of urban students and families and providing opportunity for improved quality of life.”