University Farm Grows Sustainable Business Model

Thu, 29 Sep 2016 10:24:00 CDT  — by: David Evans

On a sunny Friday morning before this semester began, Sarah Hess, C’16, was watering lettuces when I rode down Brakefield Road on my bike for a reintroduction to the University Farm. Since graduating in 2015, I had lost touch with the Farm’s plans and expansions, and as a new hire in the Office of Sustainability, I hoped to reacquaint myself with the Farm's current incarnation.

When I asked about her lettuce, Sarah, one of four AmeriCorp VISTAS working on the Farm this year, explained her project to me. In an attempt to extend the growing season for lettuce, she is testing the viability of photo-exclusion techniques (pictured at right). The other VISTAS working with the farm include Shelby Koebley, Kacee Carter, and Ritchie Wai, and their respective projects include developing a certified-organic business model, improving communications between the Farm and community, and investigating the economic feasibility of an aquaponics program. All of these projects center around a desire to turn the farm into a business model that other local and regional farms might learn from; I soon learned that this desire is actively shaping much of the Farm these days.

Not long after I arrived, Carolyn, the farm manager, rolled in and was quickly followed by Scott Summers, C’16, and Karen Schauwecker, the Farm's new assistant manager (pictured below with Carolyn Hoagland). These experienced farm staff demonstrated Carolyn's high value for efficiency and jumped right into their work with only brief instruction while I tried to stay out of the way. Carolyn swiftly and clearly delegated roles and set the day's expectations before she and I rolled out to take care of the farm's animals and show me around.

On the way to our first stop—the billy goats–Carolyn pointed out a collection of small flags in patches of unkempt grass. She explained that the flags mark the location of wild flowers. Those spots are consequently being left alone to let those flowers grow and go to seed, because Carolyn hopes to start cultivating these local wildflowers for sale.

This drive to nurture the farm as a successful business model, and not simply a bucolic backdrop for the University, is one of the Farm's most striking qualities. Carolyn's aim to make the Farm financially successful reaches far beyond just succeeding for the University; she wants to demonstrate a model of profitable, sustainable agriculture that can be adopted by other local and regional farmers as well. Consequently, the farm's diverse agricultural projects represent a potentially robust link between the University and our neighbors and community members.

As we approached the billy goats' enclosure, Carolyn explained their role in clearing land. Since these particular goats are the male offspring born earlier this year, they must be kept separate from the female goats. At the moment, these billies only have two prerogatives: eating and mating. So to keep the goat population in check, Carolyn funnels these goats' energy into eating their way through dense vegetation as the first step in clearing land for intentional cultivation. While the goats grow in preparation for market, the soil also benefits from nutrients in the goats' manure. As a result, simple investments of time and care for these animals reap multiple rewards for the Farm.

We then moved across the street to the rest of the farm animals. Currently, the farm has about sixty layer hens in a big red coop surrounded by an electric, mobile fence in addition to a small herd of female goats that spend their days in another nearby enclosure. These hens and goats fulfill similar duties to the billy goats, but on existing pasture rather than dense brush. The animals eat and fertilize the soil they spend their days on, which helps restore the degraded soils' ability to sustainably support future crops.

Through all this, Carolyn explained the students’ roles on the farm–from digging ditches and harvesting vegetables to teaching new volunteers and rotating animal enclosures. Much of the Farm's labor comes from a large group of work study students as well as volunteers on scheduled days where anyone can go down to help out. Several of these work study students are familiar with working on a farm while others are fairly new. This steady flow of students through the Farm ensures that learning and teaching are an integral part of the operation's success, and with the addition of an assistant manager this year, Carolyn and Karen will be able to share the responsibilities of taking time to teach eager, interested students while meeting the very real need to maintain a growing agricultural business model.

If you are interested in getting involved with the Farm, contact Carolyn Hoagland at choaglan@sewanee.edu.

The Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability

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