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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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College Farm in Boiling Springs, PA Dispenses Knowledge and Organic Sustenance to a Student Body

October 31, 2012 |

What began as an environmental studies project in 1999 at Dickinson College has evolved into a flourishing organic farm. From a handful of eager student gardeners, who began with a small garden plot on campus that grew into a half-acre plot, gradually the program grew as it attracted greater student interest, says Matt Steiman, assistant manager of production for the farm.

Today, the farm sits on 50 acres of land, in Boiling Springs, Pa.—about six miles off campus—that was donated to the college in the 80s. When the students approached the college administration, they were met with a great reception, says Steiman, with the only stipulation being that the farm had to be educational. “The college administration was in support of it from the beginning,” he says. “We have students coming out here for classes, fieldtrips, internships and independent research. We are not trying to be an agriculture school, but we are allowing students to get some hands-on applications for a real world environment.”

The farm has garnered such attention and success that its director Jenn Halpin recently sat alongside some high-profile musicians—including Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp—at a Farm Aid press conference in September. Halpin was recognized for her local, sustainable agriculture leadership at Dickinson College Farm.

Her efforts in conjunction with Steiman’s and the student farmers’ work has allowed Dickinson College Farm to grow virtually every type of organic vegetable that is easy to grow in Pennsylvania, some of which include tomatoes, salad greens, carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes, winter squash, spinach, radishes, eggplant and garlic. “Our goal is to feed the student body as much certified organic produce as possible,” Steiman says.  In addition, Dickinson College Farm is currently raising beef cattle, sheep, chickens and a few pigs sustainably and with a complete ecosystem in mind.

Students working the land at Dickinson College Farm. Photo Credit: Dickinson College Farm.

“We have cool ways of working with beneficial organisms,” says Steiman. “We have six ponds, which we call hub ponds, where pollinators and insects (including dragonflies, praying mantes and toads) can find a habitat where they attack pest insects.” In addition to the hub ponds, Dickinson’s farm also uses 75 bird boxes and plants trees every year to develop alternative habitats. “We took what was previously a giant monoculture corn and soybean field and broke it down into smaller pieces,” Steiman says.

Creating an ecosystem is just one way in which the farm strives toward sustainability. Steinman says that the farm uses renewable energy, including a solar-powered barn, golf cart and irrigation system. The farm also utilizes biodiesel as much as possible for its tractors and is currently working on a project to create fuel from cow manure and compost.

“Composting is also a really big deal for us,” Steiman says. “Every day we collect food waste from the college cafeteria to make compost for fertilizing our field.” Other sustainable methods the farm employs include integrated pest management, cover cropping and raising pasture-fed animals.

Steiman says being both certified organic and Food Alliance certified helps to reiterate the farm’s mission and message. “We feel that they are good labels for us. Food Alliance overlaps with organic certification and covers different areas of farming, including having a fair and safe working environment and landscape diversification,” he explains. “We have been growing organically for a long time without the certification, but having it helps to verify that we use good practices. Also, students will have experience with the paperwork, as well as following organic-certified rules.”

Dickinson College Farm supplies its organically grown food to the campus dining hall, as well as through its CSA (in this case, standing for campus-supported agriculture), which is available to college staff, faculty and alumni. In addition, Dickinson’s farm appears at a popular farmers market in Carlisle, Pa. called Farmers on the Square. The money that the farm earns from selling its produce goes right back to the farm. “All operating expenses except for labor are covered by vegetable sales,” Steiman says. “After several years of developing the program, our sales are significant enough that we can invest in capital.” Dickinson College does support the farm financially as well, including paying for farmers’ salaries.

Steiman says the farm will continue to expand its operation to include supplying beef to the cafeteria, fine-tuning crop production for better yields and high quality products, enhancing its seed saving practices and working on an agroforestry project, integrating trees and shrubs with crops and animals.

For the growers at Dickinson College Farm, it is all about how its crew can produce wholesome food sustainably, maintain the natural landscape of its farm and continue to get better at what it does. “We try to keep it real. With our labor support, it would be easy enough to loaf around and have fun all of the time,” Steiman quips. “Jenn (Halpin) and I are career farmers, so we want to maintain productivity. We realize this is not a private farm, so we like to give back to our community, with workshops, open houses and demonstrations. And, as a college farm, our main client is the [student body]. If we serve them through academic experiences, we really feel like we are doing our job.”

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