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Student farmers turn dining hall into classroom

Student farmers in field

For senior biology major Alayne McKnight, an afternoon hefting a shovel and poking seedlings into the dirt at the Agroecology Education Farm was the equivalent of a classroom lecture.

“They can tell you all day long what nutrients the plants need, but until you actually see your little bitty plants turn yellow and die, you don’t really get it,” McKnight said, patting dirt around butterhead lettuce shoots planted in a chevron pattern.

NC State University’s Agroecology Education Farm is a double-impact instructional tool: The six-acre site gives practical experience to students taking agroecology-related courses or volunteering as a service project. And the abundance of produce it provides the university dining system each year – 3,222 pounds in 2015 – reminds students across campus to think about where their food comes from and how it is produced.

“My goal is to go beyond CALS students,” said Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, associate professor of crop science and director of the farm. “I think students from across the university have the capacity to be leaders and advocates within their own food systems.”

Schroeder-Moreno’s class gives students their first foray into the restaurant supply business, a key skill for aspiring agricultural experts. At the start of the semester, students study the preferences of dining hall chefs to figure which crops to plant and how many of each. potential pest problems, resistance to disease, how to grow it.

Next comes the fun part: planting the produce in pots and nurturing them into seedlings to be transplanted at the Mid Pines Road site on the Lake Wheeler Field Research Station. That means valuable lessons in soil health and nutrient management. 

“It’s fun and it’s practical. You learn a lot through doing something rather than just talking about it, and that’s really important to me.” -Morgan Malone, senior biology major. Photo by Marc Hall
“It’s fun and it’s practical. You learn a lot through doing something rather than just talking about it, and that’s really important to me.” -Morgan Malone, senior biology major, right

“A lot of student passion and effort is out here,” Schroeder-Moreno said. “You need to have a place where students can make mistakes and experiment.”

Director of Dining Halls Keith Smith said the addition of local food to the dining hall is key in extending the educational environment beyond the classroom.

“Reminding people where their food comes from is significant in this day and age – the average age of farmers in North Carolina is really high, which means we need to get young people interested in agriculture,” Smith said. “But unless we supply opportunities for students to see and feel what it’s like, we’re not going to get that.”

Paige Kennedy, a second-year student in the masters of animal science program, said she sees the work as preparing her for the complex realities of professional agriculture.

“No farm’s situation is the same as others, so the more experience you have, the more you can understand the challenges people face,” Kennedy said. “All the experience you can get makes you a more valuable resource to other farms.

-C. Kellner