A Perfect Pairing

Three women in a hoop house, inspecting plants.

Intern Jennie Wagner, Director Michelle Schroeder-Moreno and Farm Manager Alison Reeves inspect plants growing in the hoop house that NC State Dining funded on the Agroecology Education Farm.

In the decade since NC State University’s Agroecology Education Farm was created, it has grown much more than produce. It’s also grown a healthy partnership with NC State Dining that helps students connect the food on their plates to the importance of agriculture.

Through the partnership, NC State Dining gets fruits and vegetables from the farm to serve with some of the 30,000 meals it prepares each day. This year, that included 8,000 pounds of tomatoes, greens, watermelon, peppers and more that were grown on less than 1.5 acres, according to farm manager Alison Reeves.

In return, NC State Dining has invested substantially in the farm, paying part of Reeves’ salary, funding a hoop house that extends production in the months when the students are on campus, and sponsoring a postharvest teaching pavilion where produce is washed and refrigerated before it goes to NC State’s dining halls.

People mingling under a shelter for a fancy feast.
At an on-farm dinner, Agroecology Education Farm supporters dined on a five-course meal prepared by NC State Dining. Photo by Marcello Cappellazzi.

The partnership and the pavilion, designed and built by NC State architecture students, were central to an October farm fundraiser. NC State chefs prepared a five-course feast for supporters. Dinner incorporated food grown on the Agroecology Education Farm and by local farmers. (An Italian pasta made with butternut squash, roasted root vegetables with kale pesto, and a hooligan pumpkin salad were among the offerings.)

NC State Dining and the Agroecology Education Farm began collaborating about five years ago, as Dining was changing its approach, according to Keith Smith, director of board operations and sustainability with the unit.

“Instead of making food fast at a high volume, we decided we were going to bring chefs in. We’ve gone from having four to five chefs on campus, and now there are about 26,” Smith said. “We want to be more than the place where students eat. We want to be part of their education and their community — to be part of their lives.”

“Our partnership with the Agroecology Education Farm is an extension of that educational experience for the students, helping them connect to how their food grows and where it comes from,” he added.

Tucked on a six-acre field between the Beef Education Unit and the Historic Yates Mill County Park, the farm focuses on education in sustainable agriculture.

Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, an associate professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and farm director, said that students in more than a dozen courses visit the farm, while about 500 student volunteers come to the farm individually or with clubs and other organizations each year.

One of those student farm volunteers was Chris Dunham, who now serves as NC State Dining’s nutrition and sustainability specialist. He’s passionate about the farm and its mission, and he continues to lend a hand there.

“For me, NC State is a land-grant university. Our foundation is in agriculture, and it doesn’t make sense for us not to grow food on campus for ourselves,” Dunham said. “It’s valuable for NC State Dining, for the farm and for the students.”

Schroeder-Moreno, one of the farm’s founders, agrees. She sees the farm as integral in providing learning opportunities to the increasing number of students interested in studying agroecology. The university began courses in agroecology in 2004, and because of the demand from students, this year it added an Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems major.

“Students come to the farm from a range of backgrounds — some have never farmed, and others come from traditional farms,” she said. “Here, they get hands-on experience in sustainable agriculture: They think, and they do.”

Want to support the Agroecology Education Farm? Visit go.ncsu.edu/donateagroecology or agroecologyeducationfarm.wordpress.ncsu.edu/get-involved/

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.