Hands-on experiences for students and a new major to attract more of them into agriculture are among benefits of Michelle Schroeder-Moreno’s agroecology program.
In 2005, Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno was a new assistant professor of crop science, hired to develop an agroecology minor and teach courses. In her first semester teaching here, she realized, “I need a space to teach students in a hands-on way.”
From such humble beginnings as a field of alfalfa and corn with no real infrastructure for teaching or anything else, the Agroecology Education Farm has grown to a small sustainable farm that supports student and community education and provides vegetables for NC State’s University Dining. Last summer, the farm at the Lake Wheeler Road Education Unit hosted 150 people from across the country for the national conference of the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association.
The farm has indeed come a long way since 2005, when there was not even a toolshed. Student work groups relied on hand tools delivered by pickup truck. With no irrigation at the field, water was provided from a tank on the back of a truck.
Much of what is there now – irrigation equipment, tool sheds, real farming equipment, composting areas, picnic tables for events and even a wood-fired pizza oven – has come over time through Schroeder-Moreno’s persistence and charming way of sharing her vision of an educational farm with others.
She began looking for space for a student farm in 2005 with College of Agriculture and Life Sciences colleagues Dr. David Orr, entomology, and Dr. Mike Linker, crop science. She was attracted to the small field between Lake Wheeler’s Beef Education Unit and the Historic Yates Mill County Park, home to one of the county’s restored grist mills.
“What spoke to me about this area was the proximity to Yates Mill. We made a lot of advocates in the Yates Mill Park. The director also wanted an educational farm here that demonstrated sustainable agriculture practices near a natural area,” Schroeder-Moreno said.
She saw potential at the site to demonstrate riparian buffers along a stream that ran by the field and to demonstrate crop rotation and cover cropping. Early on, organic hybrid corn and organic heirloom corn were raised at the farm, with the idea that grain produced would be milled at the park. But hungry deer ate the corn, teaching Schroeder-Moreno a valuable lesson about wildlife living near the farm.
“I wanted my agroecology students to come out here, and it was really important that they had a space to design, not just on paper, but to actually plant and to come back and harvest. And many of them did come back,” she said.
The lower end of the field, which has the richest soil, became the student farm’s primary production area. In the spring, advanced agroecology students develop plans for their own space. The garden designs showed great creativity – spirals and round plots.
“I’ve evolved over time in how much liberty I give the students – Alison (Reeves, farm manager) kind of helped me rein it in. They’re on rows now,” she said. “It’s too hard for us to manage and keep it beautiful in summer.”
A turning point for the farm came in 2007, when Schroeder-Moreno invited CALS administrators out to share her vision of what the farm could be. The three directors, along with then Dean Johnny Wynne and the Crop Science Department head, each pledged $10,000 to support the project.
“One of the main reasons for the success of this was strong support and blood, sweat and tears of students. And there was also support from our administrators and the Crop Science Department who understood what I was trying to do, and they really saw that it could bring new students to agriculture,” Schroeder-Moreno said.
A former horticulture student developed the design for the farm, and though the land is not yet certified organic, the farm needed a buffer between organic and conventional in order to qualify. The farm’s design called for a buffer of milkweeds and native grasses that provides habitat for beneficial insects. Birding enthusiasts have discovered the area’s diversity of birds that frequent the buffer.
Over time, student interest in agroecology has really grown. When Schroeder-Moreno first started teaching at NC State, her introduction to agroecology courses attracted about 10 to 12 students each semester. At the time, agroecology was a minor degree, and later it became a degree concentration in the plant and soil sciences program.
Today, the introductory course attracts about 100 students in class and another 30 students online, and efforts are under way to develop a major in agroecology and sustainable food systems. The program will be interdepartmental between Crop Science and Horticultural Science, Schroeder-Moreno said, with multidisciplinary courses in soil, crop and horticultural sciences, as well as agricultural economics and sociology.
The classes represent a good mixture of students from a traditional farming background and those who are newer to agriculture. The program also attracts a number of students working on interdisciplinary degrees. The diversity of experience leads to engaging class discussions, she said.
“I set the tone in the very beginning of each semester that everybody has something to bring to the table, experience and knowledge, and we respect everyone’s opinion. And we don’t agree all the time, but what matters is using critical thinking skills and to try and see things from a holistic perspective,” she said.
The agroecology students have a variety of interests and not just one career path. Some are interested in food policy issues, while others want to be involved in production agriculture. Many are engaged in what Schroeder-Moreno calls “entrepreneurial careers.” One such graduate was Ariel Fugate, manager of the campus farmers market and an intern with Lowe’s Foods, who went on to a permanent position with the company, helping develop relationships with local producers.
In an effort to get her classes involved in the community, Schroeder-Moreno requires students to participate in some type of service learning. As part of the experience, students write a reflection on their service both before and after their projects.
Students in the introductory class do just four hours in a semester, and many of them spend time at the Agroecology Education Farm or other local community gardens, planting, weeding and more. The advanced agroecology class is limited to 14 students to accommodate field trips and farm visits. Those students delve deeper into service learning, working in teams on projects that engage the larger community.
This year, the advanced class took on three different service projects: an Ag Awareness Day for students at Wake County’s Spring Hope Elementary School, a community workshop for families to make container gardens from recycled materials, and a design plan for an edibles garden that will adorn a rooftop area of NC State’s new Talley Student Union.
“I feel that is a very important component of education – the ability to communicate an aspect of what you learned and work with a diverse group, and to provide something to the community if you can,” she said. “We’re a land-grant university, and I feel very strongly about the land-grant mission in my courses, in the curricula and out here at the agroecology education farm.”
Another educational component of the agroecology education farm involves partnerships with food service organizations that have included Raleigh’s Green Planet Catering, previously, and NC State’s University Dining, currently. The challenge with providing produce to NC State’s dining operations was that most produce came in during summer months when there are few students on campus.
So Reeves, the farm manager, convinced University Dining to develop high tunnels on the farm for season extension, allowing the farm to grow produce earlier and later than the normal growing season. The partnership with University Dining has been wonderful, Schroeder-Moreno said.
“The whole idea is to get the education back to a greater number of students, through food in the dining halls. We want to promote local food and to have education and marketing in the dining halls,” she said.
This summer, Schroeder-Moreno is off to Croatia on a Fulbright Scholarship, to learn about agricultural production in that country and bring back knowledge to her students. She has nothing but praise for those in CALS who have supported her and the vision for hands-on sustainable agriculture education for the college.
“I can’t think of a better place and a better job: The people I get to interact with and collaborate with in sustainable ag, and the students who are entrepreneurs,” she said. “These are what keep me going and excite me every day.”
– N. Hampton