Agroecology farm and program have grown and improved

Just three years ago, the agroecology unit off Lake Wheeler Road didn’t have as much as a tool shed. Water, when available, was brought in on a truck. In fact, the first summer graduate student Stephen Ratasky managed the unit, he spent most of his time driving the water truck back and forth to hand-water a half acre of student plots there.

Flash forward to 2012: The Agroecology Education Farm, part of the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory education unit, has its own toolshed and a new well that provides drip irrigation to plots that advanced agroecology students planted in the spring. The farm has access to electricity, there are new vermicomposting and composting bins, and it even has its own tractor.

Many improvements at the Agroecology Education Farm were the result of student efforts and support from a new Agroecology Education Farm Advisory Committee, as well as production efforts by Green Planet Catering, a local business focused on local and sustainably produced food.

In October, this student farm held a Farm to Fork reception to connect the various agroecology and sustainable agriculture education student efforts at N.C. State and to identify future collaborations in agroecology across campus. For the event, the agroecology farm partnered with Rave Catering, a division of N.C. State’s University Dining to provide food and funding for the event.

Much of the credit for the farm’s transformation goes to Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, associate professor of agroecology in the Crop Science Department. She has been the driving force behind the development of the farm, and she has an even bigger vision for the farm down the road.

“With all we’ve done at N.C. State with sustainable agriculture research, outreach and education, we’re kind of behind the curve without a student farm. Across the nation, there are a lot of them,” she said.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences currently offers a minor and concentration in agroecology. Schroeder-Moreno teaches two core agroecology courses – two sections of an introductory course in the fall and a smaller advanced agroecology course in the spring for graduate and undergraduate students. Popularity of the introductory class has grown, attracting students from many disciplines, as well as other Triangle universities, among the 80 students enrolled in the fall. An online version of the introductory course is offered in the spring to about 35 students.

Michelle Schroeder-Moreno
Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno addresses the Farm to Fork reception at the Agroecology Education Farm.

Schroeder-Moreno sees the Agroecology Education Farm as more than just N.C. State’s student farm, but as a place where school groups and members of the community can come to learn about sustainable and organic crop production, as well as preparing and preserving food.

“It’s in a unique setting; it’s an urban setting. And I think by combining the university’s resources and faculty expertise with the surrounding community, you give students not only opportunities to learn about sustainable agriculture in a hands-on way, but also opportunities to learn leadership and communication skills through engagement with the community,” she said.

The idea for developing an agroecology farm was born in 2007, when Dr. Mike Linker, integrated pest management specialist in crop science, talked with Schroeder-Moreno about establishing an agroecology teaching unit. He was interested in further developing the agroecology program, which he and other faculty at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) had initially envisioned.

CEFS, a partnership of N.C. State, N.C. A&T State University and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, conducts research, education and outreach related to sustainable agriculture.

It took time for the idea to take hold. The land in question was adjacent to Yates Mill County Park, another advantage for easy access. At the time, it was used to produce corn and alfalfa used by the College’s dairy.

A beneficial insect border was first established on the site in 2008 and has been used as a teaching resource.

An advisory committee, made up of sustainability faculty on campus, has helped create the vision for the agroecology farm.

Most of the six-acre agroecology farm is still planted in winter and summer cover crops and used by agroecology classes for learning about soil analysis and sustainable agriculture practices. Soil samples taken over time indicate that the richest soil on the site is located on lowlands near the park property, the site where advanced agroecology students develop gardens in the spring.

In 2010, student Stephen Ratasky came to N.C. State to earn his master’s degree in crop science’s sustainability concentration. As an undergraduate at Clemson University, he had been involved with the student organic farm there, and he saw in N.C. State a place where he could continue that involvement. He was excited about the opportunity to work with Schroeder-Moreno on developing N.C. State’s farm.

“I thought it was interesting and intriguing to take on this new site,” Ratasky said. “It was almost like having a blank slate.”

Ratasky spent the past two summers as farm manager at the agroecology farm, helping maintain gardens that students had planted in the spring. The first year, with limited equipment and no water on the site, he spent much of his time – up to five hours a day – hand-watering the gardens to keep plants alive.

Last summer, things improved greatly at the farm, with the addition of a well and irrigation system. Students from even a few years back would be surprised to find that the farm now has a tool shed, a tractor with implements and electricity on site.

Schroeder-Moreno has acquired these new resources slowly, with support from CALS, the Crop Science Department and colleague Paul Mueller, who helped her find affordable equipment.

Last summer, several other graduate students in addition to Ratasky worked at the farm. Their projects ranged from a vermicomposting bin, to educational signage to communications outreach, including social media and a student farm blog. Perhaps the biggest advancement was water for a drip irrigation system.

The irrigation system required spring students to rethink their gardens some somewhat from curves and mounds to rows that could be fed by drip lines. In addition to the student garden plots, Daniel Whitaker of Green Planet Catering has planted plots that provide produce for his catering operation. When students planned their gardens in the spring, they looked for inspiration from Green Planet’s menu.

Summer 2012 was a great production success, with lots of produce going to Green Planet Catering, and extra produce was donated to Raleigh’s Interfaith Food Shuttle. The irrigation system also freed Ratasky to focus on other projects, such as building picnic tables and compost bins tables for the farm.

But the story doesn’t end there. For his master’s project, Ratasky is helping shape a vision for the student farm’s future. He conducted an in-depth study of 24 student farms on college campuses to help develop a plan for N.C. State’s farm.

Like Schroeder-Moreno, Ratasky wants the farm to become more engaged with the community, offering workshops, tours and other educational opportunities. He believes that there is a captive audience in the Triangle, with so many new community gardens developing.

What is Ratasky’s personal wish list for the farm? “A fully functioning teaching pavilion equipped with a kitchen, where we could hold outdoor demonstrations and classes, with an area where you can wash, prepare, and store food,” he says.

“When I think about what I want to develop, I want to take it to a whole new level,” said Schroeder-Moreno. “I’d like to develop a new model for student farms that engage with the community, and hopefully provide a resource for the surrounding urban community. The education has to be the focus.”

The demand for the agroecology courses suggests the time is right to expand the program from a minor or degree concentration to an agroecology major, and a vibrant student farm is a critical piece to meeting that goal, Schroeder-Moreno said.

Agroecology farm fall event featured locally produced beer
Locally produced beer was featured at the six-acre agroecology farm's fall event.

University Dining will also be a strong partner in making this happen, and we can think about how to incorporate this agroecology education in more visible efforts on campus such as sourcing produce from the farm to the cafeteria and bringing the compost produced from dining food waste back to the farm,” she said. “This creates food system education that comes full circle.

“The farm is a fundamental and critical component for developing an agroecology major program,” said Schroeder-Moreno. “If we’re going to the take education to the next level for agroecology, for the undergraduate or graduate level, we need a facility near campus to be able to explore hands-on education and research and develop a community for students, a place where they can share similar interests and get together.”

– Natalie Hampton

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