It was the type of crisp autumn weekend in central Pennsylvania when people cheer local football teams, find a fall festival or rake falling leaves. Dickinson College, located in the town of Carlisle, seemed sleepy. But looks can be deceiving.
That weekend, Dickinson College's classrooms hosted the nation's first conference on the role of farms and gardens on college campuses. Seeding the Future convened 240 students, faculty, farm staff and school officials from more than 60 higher education institutions from around the United States and Canada.
Lindsey Lyons, assistant director of the Center for Sustainability Education at Dickinson College, said, "Participants engaged in a variety of sessions that included the nuts and bolts of operating college farms and gardens; teaching and learning using farms and gardens; growing and sustaining programs; and building community partnerships."
Student-operated farms and gardens were rare on college campuses 20 years ago. In fact, planting or picking vegetables, raising livestock and composting in the name of higher learning were left to universities specializing in agriculture and veterinary medicine.
Things have changed. The 2011 College Sustainability Report Card examined more than 300 colleges and universities in all 50 states and some Canadian provinces and found that almost all of the schools surveyed devoted at least a small portion of their food budgets to buying from local farms and producers. Seven in 10 schools had a community garden or farm on campus from which dining halls could source food.
The Seeding the Future conference gave these schools the opportunity to share ideas, experiences and advice. "The networking and information exchanged at the conference left everyone inspired to take a fresh approach at their own farms, including here at Dickinson," Lyons said.
Located just eight miles off campus, the 180-acre Dickinson College Organic Farm grows U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. It also raises beef, broilers and laying hens. The farm provides its bounty to 135 families participating in its community supported agriculture program, the campus cafeteria, local restaurants, a weekly farmers market and the town of Carlisle's Project SHARE food bank.
"The farm has become a living laboratory in sustainability," says Jenn Halpin, director of the Dickinson College Organic Farm. "A solar hot-water system heats the greenhouse and water for showers. Underground cisterns store water for crops. The campus dining halls send food scraps to the farm's composting facility. Nothing is wasted."
While keeping things local, Halpin and her team also don't lose sight of how connected their activities are to the broader landscape.
The Dickinson College Organic Farm adjoins the Yellow Breeches, a premier trout stream and tributary of the Susquehanna River.
In fact, when the farm was established in 2007, Dickinson College collaborated with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to draft a conservation plan that documented existing conditions and outlined steps to address concerns. This qualified the farm for funding to implement strategies that included installing filter areas to prevent nutrient-laden runoff from reaching the Yellow Breeches.
The NRCS has also consulted the farm on a number of issues, including pests.
"Since Dickinson College Farm is certified-organic, they have a limited number of conventional tools to control pests," said Chad Cherefko, Cumberland County district conservationist for the NRCS. "We have assisted with developing an integrated pest management plan that when implemented, will create habitat for beneficial insects and other natural predators like the American toad."
The NRCS and the Dickinson College farm are also working together to control invasive vegetation along the Yellow Breeches and replace it with native plants. This work recently received a boost from a Chesapeake Bay Watershed Forestry Program grant. As a recipient, the Dickinson College Organic Farm will collaborate with the NRCS, Penn State University, the state Bureau of Forestry and faculty from the college's earth science, environmental studies, biology and GIS departments on integrating trees with agriculture - also known as agro-forestry.
"The president's Chesapeake Bay Executive Order calls for a strategy to maximize forest restoration in priority areas, including lands with agro-forestry potential. With Pennsylvania contributing half of the Chesapeake Bay's freshwater, our farm fit the bill," Halpin said.
During this initial year of the three-year grant, the Dickinson College Organic Farm and its partners will develop a demonstration site to illustrate how agro-forestry can be employed in a farm setting. In the second year of the grant, the college will host workshops for landowners and natural resource professionals interested in learning more about these practices. It will also develop a case study to serve as a resource and model for organizations across the country.
"With farmable land in operation, agro-forestry represents a logical next step for the Dickinson College Organic Farm," Cherefko said. "A small wood lot or a pasture that incorporates tree production can diversify the landscape and the farm's sources of income. These areas can generate alternative forest products like ginseng, pawpaw and even biofuels."
While only in the early stages at the Dickinson College Organic Farm, agro-forestry represents one of many projects the farm's staff and students are pursuing with enthusiasm - all in the name of higher learning and protecting the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. They may even turn a profit along the way.