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Reunion, Soilbration bring alumni, friends back to CEFS

What do Firsthand Foods CEO Jennifer Curtis, University of Georgia faculty member Suzanne O’Connell and Western Illinois University Organic Research Director Joel Gruver have in common? All developed a passion for what they do now through earlier work with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.

In October, CEFS celebrated its 20th anniversary with three big events: a Soilbration on the Goldsboro farm Oct. 17, the annual Sustainable Agriculture Lecture with Dr. Fred Kirschenmann and a reunion of faculty, students, interns and others at NC State University Oct. 18. CEFS is a partnership of NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, N.C. A&T State University and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Curtis, O’Connell and Gruver were among the CEFS (and NC State) alumni who gave short “CEFS Talks” about how their CEFS experience led them to new opportunities. Other talks were given by Cary Rivard, former intern and CALS graduate student, now a fruit and vegetable specialist with Kansas State University; Danielle Treadwell, former CALS graduate student, now associate professor of horticultural science at the University of Florida; and Sarah Morgan, Fayetteville veterinarian and NC State graduate.

Prior to the reunion dinner at Talley Student Union, Dr. Fred Kirschenmann presented the annual CEFS Sustainable Agriculture Lecture on “The Future of Food and Agriculture.” A longtime advocate for sustainable agriculture, Kirschenmann is Distinguished Fellow of Iowa’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. In 2006, Kirschenmann spoke at the dedication of CEFS Alternative Swine Unit.

It was at the Alternative Swine Unit dedication that Curtis first met CEFS Director Nancy Creamer. A former vegetarian with no knowledge of the meat industry, Curtis became a consultant to CEFS NC Choices sustainable and niche meat initiative. The project was so successful that Curtis went on to start Firsthand Foods of Durham, a local, sustainable meat company.

As a graduate student, O’Connell studied grafted tomato production in high tunnels and soil nutrients from cover crops. But perhaps her best memories were of international travel experiences to Uruguay with a CEFS group, and later to Honduras and Croatia. At UGA, she teaches sustainable and organic horticulture practices.

At CEFS, Gruver managed the Student Organic Farm – now called the Small Farm Unit – and the summer sustainable agriculture internship program. As assistant professor of soil science and director of organic research at Western Illinois, he is perhaps best known for purple-and-gold organic popcorn in school colors that he helped develop to draw attention to the organic program. This specialty popcorn has become a colorful spirit item for the university.

In addition to the “CEFS Talks,” guests at the local, sustainable dinner in the Talley Student Union heard from a panel of CEFS supporters. Several, including NC State faculty members Dr. Paul Mueller, emeritus, and Dr. Roger Crickenberger, N.C. Agricultural Research Service, helped hatch the idea for CEFS in 1994.

Others reflecting on their CEFS experience were Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm in Alamance County and CEFS board member; Dr. John O’Sullivan, retired co-director of CEFS from N.C. A&T State University; Shorlette Ammons, CEFS community-based food systems outreach coordinator at N.C. A&T State; and Susan Perry-Cole, CEFS Board of Advisers.

Mueller recalled how CEFS grew out of group discussions about how to address sustainable agriculture. But the founding faculty members never dreamed the program would become as large as it is today, he said.

“What started as a place thing (based at Cherry Research Farm in Goldsboro) has become much more than that. I never could have imagined it at the time,” Mueller said.

Hitt said he and his wife, Betsy, were farming on 5 acres, with only 10 years of experience when CEFS “welcomed us into the group. The ride has been amazing.”

The interns who come to CEFS each summer have brought excitement to Goldsboro, according to Ammons. “Kids here were amazed that people would come to Goldsboro from all over,” she said.

The dinner and Kirschenmann’s speech attracted more than 300 people to NC State.

Kirschenmann also delivered the keynote address on Oct. 17 at the CEFS Soilbration in Goldsboro, which included a series of speakers and presentations focused on soil health. Other speakers included conservation agronomists Ray Archuleta and Steve Woodruff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

In addition, the Soilbration included site visits to the Farming Systems Research Unit, Small Farm Unit, Agroforestry Program, Organic Research Unit/cover crop demonstration and the Pasture-Based Dairy Unit.

– Natalie Hampton