Agroecology Farm Goes Solo with Big Impact

NC State students and faculty are digging in to keep life normal.  Around campus there are shining examples of faculty and staff sourcing supplies from their labs to donate to hospitals.  Faculty and students are adjusting to life online, finding new ways to keep class and campus life knit together. This Wolfpack dedication is happening in the field as well.  

NC State’s Agroecology Education Farm is normally a bustling hub of student and volunteer activity.  It’s home to many student-led projects, and it also grows a significant amount of produce for campus dining.  What’s happening with those mid-stream projects, and where is all the produce going since campus dining is closed? We talked with agroecology farm manager Alison Reeves about the farm workforce, produce, and student projects.  

How has social distancing impacted farm activities?

We’re down to just one staff member at the farm – that’s me.  For both food safety and worker safety, we wanted to be extra careful.  Although the COVID-19 virus isn’t really transmitted through food, we handle so much equipment it would be kind of tricky if we had more than one person out there.

It’s a tough time because it’s almost April, which is the time when we would usually be planting for the summer.  We have a bunch of [plant] starts from the greenhouse, and I’m trying to narrow down and be thoughtful about what one person can manage right now.  

Since you planted the normal volume of spring crops, what’s happening with the produce?

We do still have spring stuff in the ground.  Even though the dining halls have cut back hours they have taken on great leadership to prevent food waste.  They are using what produce they can and sharing the rest with the campus Feed the Pack food pantry.  We’re also still donating to the Interfaith Food Shuttle as we’ve always done.  

Early this year we partnered with Fountain Dining Hall exclusively, which is the freshman all-you-can-eat buffet-style dining hall, so we were excited that produce would be mostly going to students.  So we planned bigger volumes, items for their new salad bar, and special meal showcases around a certain country or ethnicity. A while back they did a West African meal and used some of our produce for that. 

woman with mask checking food pantry shelves

How does Feed the Pack Food Pantry work?

Any student, staff, or faculty member with campus ID can use the food pantry once a week to shop for their household. In 2020 already, they have collected over 7,521 pounds of food and have had over 1,000 visits.  Products available include canned goods, baking items, proteins, produce and even hygiene products.  

a row of harvested carrots laying on dark soilWhat produce are you harvesting and donating right now?

We have carrots, beets, swiss chard, kale, spinach, and radishes.  All the really good spring things! Usually, there’s a special April meal held in dining halls called Farm Fest that’s an all-local meal.  We have a bunch of things growing specifically for that.

How are you handling the high harvest volume solo?

I’m lucky because the spring stuff is more forgiving than the summer stuff that needs to be harvested right that minute.  All the greens and root vegetables are a little more forgiving until it gets warmer. They can hold a bit longer in the ground and can be harvested harvest them more slowly, which makes it much easier.

Is everything being used?  Are both groups able to take all types of produce, or are they selective?

Yes, they are able to take it all – whatever quantities we have.  

a bin of spring beets to be donated to the NC State dining hallsHow are you adjusting your summer planting?  

We had already put in our first succession of plants so we have transplants ready.  It was heartbreaking because this year we made the commitment to no-till. We got a load of compost from the new NC State facility and a bunch of leaf mulch from the horticulture field lab in anticipation of making all these new summer beds.  But with one person, that’s just not going to happen, at least to the planned extent.

Right now I’m planting everything in the two hoop houses we have.  I’m doing a lot of intercropping – planting close together, maybe two crops in one row, or a low canopy and high canopy.  For example, I’m planting the outside rows with carrots then a row of radishes and then tomatoes in the center. So the idea is that once the radishes are gone (they grow in 30 days) there will be space in between the carrots and tomatoes.  And by the time the tomatoes are big, the carrots will be ready to pull out. It overlaps the seasons in a way I wouldn’t normally have to.     

I’m kind of playing Tetris with the field right now.  I would have planned to plant other things in the hoop houses – fall crops or a second summer succession.  I’m just kind of moving things around to get things in the ground right now.  

Your spring volunteer days had to be canceled.  What impact does that have?

It’s really a different place without our community.  It’s strange, to be honest. I miss everybody. It’s a hard hit without the volunteers.  They are the ones who really help us with big projects like moving 40 yards of compost or weeding whole rows.  Without the volunteers, those jobs just won’t get done.

I’m also missing our student workers.  We usually have five at the farm working 10 hours per week.  The farm and I are missing them. They are a source of work but also creativity and just the life of community the farm is based around.

Do you hear from students?

Yes many of them are checking in!  Most of them worked on projects that they had to leave abruptly.  They left for spring break and couldn’t come back. So I’m talking with them about how to finish those projects up or have them ready for when they come back.  I’m grateful for their help and for keeping in touch!

What’s the biggest challenge so far?

Shifting priorities and figuring out where I need to put things.  I have a pretty good schedule figured out, but all of this juggling that everybody is doing these days is hard.  

Four bins of spring produce for donation
Spring veggies from the Agroecology Farm ready for delivery to campus dining and food pantry.

Has anything surprising happened?

I’ve been so worried for farmers who sell their vegetables at farmer’s markets and restaurants.  I see the amazing community support through direct sales or drop-offs. I’m proud of the community supporting the local farmers here in North Carolina. The food is still coming!  A pandemic doesn’t stop things from growing.

Is there anything people can do to help you or the farm?

Not really [laughing].  I think the focus should be on the farmers who are producing right now.  If there are ways for people to support the local farms in their community and small businesses, that’s the most important thing to do right now.  

Resources for NC consumers wanting locally grown NC food

Are You a Pack Member in Need of Assistance? Or Are You Able to Share With Others?

Feed the Pack community food pantry is open with limited hours and new protocols.  Please visit their website for the latest announcements and donation requests.  Financial donations are always appreciated.

Everone’s contribution makes a difference.  Agroecology’s Alison Reeves is one part of the Pack who are growing the future.