Agroecology Students Build Sustainable Food Forest

Long shot of a farm with students and greenhouse in the background

The Agroecology Education Farm at NC State has an exciting new project taking root, which will offer long-term opportunities for students and the NC State community to learn about the sustainable cultivation of fruit trees. In the Spring of 2019, NC State undergraduate students Jesse Tysinger and Will Voelker learned that their proposal to establish an orchard at the Agroecology Education Farm was chosen as one of the receipts of the NC State Sustainability Fund. The fund, which is generated by a $2.50 per semester student fee, is managed by a student-run advisory board that reviews grant proposals from the campus community twice annually. Grants are awarded to sustainability projects that have high student impact and help the university advance sustainability. For the 2019-2020 academic year, 14 projects were selected and awarded $165,000 in grants. 

Designing a Sustainable System

To develop their plan for the fruit orchard, Tysinger and Voelker conducted extensive research and sought counsel from NC State professors like Dr. Anne Spafford, Associate Professor in Horticultural Science, who provided helpful permaculture advice from the project’s early stages. The students were especially inspired by the concept of building a “food forest,” which is a low-maintenance and sustainable system of food production based on mimicking woodland ecosystems and incorporating a mix of fruit trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials into the landscape. In the Fall of 2019, the students purchased a diverse selection of fruit trees and perennial shrubs from Edible Landscaping in Afton, VA. The plants selected for the orchard are a variety of apples, figs, pawpaws, persimmons, elderberries, goji berries, gooseberries, mulberries, and currants. 

Students research and plan new agroecology food forest at NC State
Students researched and implemented their design for the new Orchard Fruit Forest

To prepare the site, the students created a unique berm and swale system, which follows the contours of the landscape. The students also created hugelkultur-style beds, which are no-dig raised beds designed to provide the fruit trees with a long term source of nutrients, encourage beneficial insects, fungi, and soil microbes, and to minimize the need for excessive irrigation. While the food forest will take several years to become established and bear fruit, over time the orchard will provide a diversity of fruits for students and volunteers to enjoy, and the produce will also be sold to NC State Dining.

Agroecology students hope to grow apples in new fruit orchard
Agroecology students hope to eventually provide NC State dining with fruit like these apples, pictured in Western NC.

Inspiring Future Growth

Agroecology students win NC State sustainability grant
Undergraduates Will Voelker and Jesse Tysinger won an NC State Sustainability Grant for their Orchard Forest idea

Reflecting on their goals for the project, Voelker envisions it will “increase the foot traffic and student exposure of the Agroecology Education Farm as a whole, and provide a venue for workshops and classes that involve sustainable fruit farming.” Voelker also hopes the project will “inspire future students to pursue careers in sustainable agriculture and give them an introduction to the concept of food forests.”  The successful funding and implementation of this orchard project also demonstrate how the Agroecology Education Farm serves as a unique research platform for NC State students to develop projects that expand educational opportunities at the farm and to gain skills in grant writing and leadership. 

Learn More About the NC State Agroecology Farm & Program

NC State students interested in studying sustainable agriculture are encouraged to take classes in the new Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems major at NC State, which is a cross-departmental program offered through the Crop & Soil Sciences and Horticultural Science departments that trains future food system leaders with the interdisciplinary knowledge, real-world experiences, and professional networks to develop sustainable solutions for our complex agriculture and food system challenges. This major offers students a variety of courses taught by diverse faculty experts in sustainable agriculture, unique hands-on learning and community engagement experiences, as well as networking and professional development opportunities through internship and research experiences. 

To learn more about the fruit orchard project at the Agroecology Education Farm at NC State, contact Alison Reeves: To learn more about the Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems major, contact Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno:

Thank you to the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) for this story and their ongoing support of the sustainable farm research as well as the NC State Agroecology program and farm.  Together we are growing the future.