Sewanee's garden gives students a taste of agriculture

Sewanee's garden gives students a taste of agriculture

December 7th, 2012 by Rachel Bunn in Local Regional News

Stella Pfau, Alex Butler and Rachel Jenkins, from left, all work-study students, harvest fall vegetables at the Sewanee Organic Garden on the Sewanee: The University of the South campus. The garden is a sustainability and education initiative that also provides organic foods to the campus dining hall.

Photo by Alyson Wright/Times Free Press.

Stella Pfau examines radishes as she and other work-study students harvest fall vegetables at the Sewanee Organic Garden on the Sewanee: The University of the South campus in Sewanee, Tenn.

Photo by Alyson Wright/Times Free Press.

Origins of the farm

The farm at Sewanee: University of the South has been years in the making.

Biology professor David Haskell developed a course that studied how food moved from the farm to the table nearly a decade ago.

His course did more than teach students about farming -- it launched a larger discussion of sustainability at the university.

Food for Thought, a committee of faculty, staff and students, looked broadly at food and the university, making many recommendations, including a farm that would be an educational training ground for Sewanee students.

"Our goal isn't to provide the school with food," said Gina Raicovich, Sewanee's new farm manager. "Students are more interested in learning. You name it, it can be worked into a farm."

Haskell's course made it possible for the farm to take shape, and Sewanee has a deep commitment to environmental education, which drew Executive Chef Rick Wright there.

"The intent here is to run a sustainable food program," he said. "We hope what's happening here will happen other places."

SEWANEE, Tenn. - On a plot of land tucked behind the athletic fields, Gina Raicovich and three students spread mulch over what used to be a parking lot at Sewanee: University of the South.

"Wow, I can't believe we are finally getting this project done," said Raicovich, the farm manager at Sewanee's student-run farm.

Stella Pfau, 23, a senior ecology and biodiversity major from Birmingham, Ala., and Alex Butler, 19, a freshman from Atlanta with no declared major, unravel a bale of pine straw, cloaking the cardboard they spread over the ground earlier. Rachel Jenkins, 19, a sophomore philosophy major from Buford, Ga., and Raicovich follow behind, spreading the mulch evenly.

"This will eventually be our chicken area," said Pfau as she worked Wednesday afternoon. "The cardboard is simply to suppress the weeds."

It's the end of the first fall harvest at Sewanee's farm, a teaching lab that allows students work-study jobs right now, and eventually hopes to provide more research opportunities as it expands.

The project came to life this spring, one of the recommendations from faculty, staff and students for sustainablity at the university.

Raicovich and students worked over the summer to prepare the garden area for planting. They started with a crop of beans, mainly soybeans, to put nitrogen back into the ground and ensure rich soil for future plantings.

The beans harvested this fall are integrated into the menu in McClurg Dining Hall, which serves the university community. Students and faculty also enjoy grass-fed beef from cows that graze on 40 acres of farm near Lake Dimmick.

"Everything that comes out of the farm goes into the dining hall," said Rick Wright, executive chef at Sewanee.

Though the garden produced only a small amount of beans, they are worked into a variety of dishes that are marked so students know they're eating farm-grown products. The students love them, Wright said.

"They take pride in knowing these are student-grown," he said. "And, quite frankly, it's delicious."

Wright hosted a farm-to-table workshop this fall where participants used the student-grown soybeans to make tofu and soy milk for the dining hall.

Raicovich is surprised by the number of students interested in the garden. Some students requested to work on the farm, and an ad for a part-time compost manager received a large response this fall.

"There's so much good about farming," Jenkins said. "You learn so much, not necessarily about how things grow, but how things work."

A NEW OLD IDEA

The university's farm isn't new, but is the latest reclamation of land that has been cultivated on and off for more than a century.

The university farmed the land from the 1890s to the 1960s, when it was turned into athletic fields and other facilities. A part of the land was set aside as a community garden for students.

Despite this, the land was in rough shape when Raicovich started work last spring. Remnants of the former student endeavors were removed. New curved plant beds help prevent erosion, and a fence protects the crops from hungry animals.

Right now, most of the curved beds are enclosed in a thick blanket of bright green cover plants that hold nutrients in the soil and will be turned under in the spring.

Rows of winter crops -- greens, broccoli and radishes -- grow in the middle of the garden. Once those are harvested, the beds will also be planted with the same winter rye grass, oil seed radish and clover plants that fill the others.

During the main part of the harvest season, volunteers helped keep up with the crop, but Raicovich's five student workers take care of what's left.

Jenkins had a farm internship over the summer, and also spent several days a week working with Raicovich. Pfau worked in the community garden before it was part of the farm.

Butler did not initially request the farm job as part of his work study, but has learned to like it, he said.

"We have a pretty sweet deal; we have a much more engaging work-study," Pfau said. "It's nice to have a break from academia."

FUTURE OF THE FARM

There are plans to expand the farm next year, adding a handful of chickens and a few pigs and goats, and preparing two additional acres for planting.

"We have to get a little bit bigger -- that will expand the educational opportunities," Raicovich said, adding that things like bee keeping and a greater variety of crops could be in the future.

Raicovich and Wright also have met to determine what the dining hall needs or wants, and what is possible for the students to grow in the garden.

The problem the farm faces right now is how to expand without stretching its resources too far. Next year's expansion will be small, an experiment of how adding animals will work, but anything larger will require more workers, buildings and money.

Though the farm is part of the university's budget, fundraising will be used for things like buildings.

The garden isn't the only part of the old farm that could get a new life. Raicovich wants to reuse some of the infrastructure of the original farm that was left behind.

Decaying silos sit off in the distance, and there is a former dairy barn across the street that could be part of the new project.

A new roof a few years ago may have saved the barn from destruction, Raicovich said, giving a better chance for future reuse.

"It's kind of a fun thing to be challenged by looking for resources to be repurposed," she said.