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Ensuring Sustainability and Food Security in Perpetuity

three women looking at plants in a greenhouse

Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, director of Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) is entering her second year as the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Distinguished Chair in Sustainable Community-Based Food Systems. With CEFS since 2004, she has spent close to two decades engaging diverse people from communities, academia and agricultural industry. The endowed chair position gives her what she needs to continue that work: funding and flexibility.

“The Kellogg Endowment is unique because it funds our programming that impacts our research, education and extension programs broadly, rather than just one person,” Schroeder-Moreno explains. “It allows us to continue our commitment to sustainable agriculture and community-based food systems in perpetuity.”

CEFS is a national and international leader in addressing sustainability and food system resilience through a partnership between NC State University, NC Agricultural and Technical State University and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS). Its vast undertaking embodies the three land-grant missions- research, education and community-based outreach programing. CEFS interdisciplinary collaborations and field based research are focused at the Cherry Research Station in Goldsboro, North Carolina, one of the 18 research stations located across the state. 

Long-term Systems Farming

On any given day at the 2,245-acre Cherry Research Station in Goldsboro, there is something new going on in one of its seven research units. It’s one of the largest research and demonstration sites for large-scale organic and sustainable production systems in the country. 

“Cherry Research Farm is really the boots on the ground kind of partnership with NCDA&CS. We’re in our 29th year of partnership and 24th year of field trials,” Schroeder-Moreno says. “One of the most unique units we have is the Farming Systems Research Unit (FRSU) that allows us to examine crop and animal yields, climate impacts, and systems impacts on things like carbon sequestration and nitrous oxides, a greenhouse gas over the long term at a large scale. One-, two-, three-year projects aren’t enough to capture those things, especially with fluctuating climates.”

Tucked between the banks of the Neuse and Little Rivers, the Cherry Research Station is primed to test resilience to hurricanes, rising temperatures, flooding and more through its diverse research units that include organic and conventional farming, integrated animal rotations and agroforestry systems. In addition, researchers have invested significantly in technology at the facility–including automated robots that sample for greenhouse gas–as they seek to make real-time data measurements for farmers to help them adjust their practices. 

“We are able to provide all this amazing research because of the endowments at both land grant universities, which allow us to conduct research and bring in new faculty and dedicated technicians,” says Schroeder-Moreno. “And because of the important investment from NCDA&CS in the equipment and people on the ground to provide this foundation for this research. It takes a lot to run our research units,” she says.

two women looking over hay and plants

Food Systems Initiatives, Extension and Education

Another main focus for CEFS is food systems and food security through community and supply chains. Schroeder-Moreno and her staff work across the state with local food supply chains and the communities to help ensure healthy, local food is accessible to all.

“We have a cohort of experts that work on our ‘farm to’ programs: farm to early child care and education, farm to senior services, farm to school,” she says. “In total at CEFS at NC State, we have 23 members of our staff looking at different segments and the education that goes along with them. For example: our farm to early childcare group is teaching about nutrition benefits while also administering a curriculum about race and equity in the food system.” 

Schroeder-Moreno is driven by equity and access to these programs and nutrition. She and her staff work closely with local Extension offices and other agencies to connect communities to state-level resources and programming. 

“Food insecurity is a complex and critical issue that impacts so many other aspects and can be especially detrimental to children. It’s very difficult for kids to study and do well in school if they don’t have food or they’re worrying about where their next meal is coming from,” she says. “It’s our goal at CEFS to work with diverse groups and community members to develop resilient and sustainable food systems that are just for all.”

Another aspect of this goal comes in undergraduate education. Schroeder-Moreno developed the undergraduate major in Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at NC State and the Agroecology Education Farm, a six-acre student and community farm located near campus at the NC State Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory.

“We’re training to engage new, diverse people as food system leaders and farmers. Our undergraduate program and agroecology classes continue to engage more women, more underrepresented individuals and first-generation students to agriculture. And that diversity and new ideas are really important when you think about how we change our food system,” she says. “In CEFS Agroecology Scholars Program in Research and Extension (ASPIRE), our summer sustainable ag and food systems training program, there are over 50% of underrepresented students across the nation enrolled and provide generous stipends to value paying students as they learn. And they’re provided professional opportunities along that path, too.” 

a woman stands holding an award plaque stands with three men
NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson with Schroeder-Moreno when she was awarded the 2016 Alumni Association Distinguished Undergraduate Professor award.

Looking Ahead

Diverse expertise and interdisciplinary collaborations are essential for CEFS’ mission to come to fruition. In her first year as director of CEFS, Schroeder-Moreno moved her offices into the Plant Sciences Building at NC State.

“We were one of the first residents of the new building. I think it’s really important because I wanted us to have even more impact, and engage in more diverse collaborations in the college,” she says. “When we talk about sustainability in agriculture and food systems, we all have to be at the table.” 

“I’m excited to help CEFS continue the real interdisciplinary integrative work that we do with communities and with agriculture,” Schroeder-Moreno continues. “One of our special gifts is bringing diverse groups together–health, research, Extension and community–CEFS is a hub for facilitation.”

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