Great things grow when your actions match your values. That’s what I learned on my visit to Guilford College Farm in February 2014.
Reading time: 2.5m
Takeaways: Guilford College Farm grows produce on about 2 acres on campus with the help of student workers, volunteers and a standout farm manager; the produce is sold on campus, to retailers like Deep Roots Market and restaurants like Lucky 32. The farm strives for sustainability in all aspects and incorporates numerous innovations in their practices.
Korey Erb, the current farm manager, shared his enthusiasm and knowledge with me on a tour of their approximately two cultivated acres on the Guilford College campus near New Garden and Friendly Roads in Greensboro. A former chemist with experience in medicinal chemistry, he’s only been living and working on farms for about five years, but he is truly passionate about the land and teaching others about farming.
David Petree, Director of Sustainability at Guilford College said that even as far back as 1996 he and another colleague had been eyeing this land as a nice place for growing vegetables. Seeing why they believed that is easy—the farm is on a gently rolling hill with a stand of trees guarding a small stream behind the barn. When I asked why Guilford College started the farm, he ascribed the origins to the value placed on fresh food by his boss, Jon Varnell, Vice President of Administration, whose mother gardened naturally before organic was even a movement.
Guilford College values the opportunity to teach others in the community about agriculture through the farm. Korey coordinates student volunteers like Bonner Scholars and work study participants to work the farm, giving these students a chance to learn firsthand what it takes to grow food successfully. He also gives tours to school groups and almost anyone (like me!) interested in learning about the farm and about growing food.
In 2013 the farm sold 64% of their harvest on campus to the cafeteria, a CSA program and a campus farmers market. The CSA fits nicely into the idea of involving the campus community in the farm, and it also provides another distribution outlet. The remainder of the harvest went to local grocers and restaurants: Bestway Grocery (known for their beer wall, 15%); Lucky 32 (10%); Deep Roots Market (6%); and Josephine’s restaurant and special orders (5%).
Even though the farm is an educational opportunity and a way to give back to the community, since the farm began growing in 2011, they’ve also focused on production and being self-supporting in their operations. In the first year on about a half-acre, they sold about $15,500 worth of produce. In 2012 they expanded to nearly an acre, added a high tunnel house and had sales increase by $22,000 over year one. Impressively, last year they added another $12,000 in sales without increasing acreage.
Korey attributes the increase in sales to the knowledge they gained the first two years. For example, the high tunnel (seen in the picture), is their most precious real estate on the farm. The protected 1/8 acre with nine 100’ beds allows them to extend the growing seasons which, in turn, ensures they have work for students and produce for the campus. Puzzling out what to grow in the tunnel, when to grow it and what to plant before and after allows them to operate with a high efficiency.
In addition to the value placed on social and economic outcomes, the natural environment is also a priority. The farm is not certified organic, but they follow organic principals and are happy to talk to anyone about their production methods and farm inputs. The group at the farm also incorporates recycling and reuse as much as possible. The siding on the barn was milled onsite from fallen trees and much of the greenhouse is repurposed material, like the signs from campus construction and the foam insulation that formerly packaged a campus delivery of new chairs. Guilford College has very progressive sustainability programs (they’re on the Princeton list of most environmentally responsible colleges) and the farm gets to reap the benefit of those initiatives in the form of compost tea and compost used to enrich the soil.
With the year after year success of the farm, they’ve doubled their cultivated area this year (from about one acre to two, including the greenhouse and tunnel). Two years ago the group started mushroom production and should be harvesting shiitakes and other treats from the same logs again this year year. Although Korey completely outlined crops for 2014, he knows that they have to remain flexible and prepared to adjust to the weather and other unknown conditions.
This philosophy of flexibility is just what you’d expect from a group that places such a high value on teaching and growing with purpose.