New teaching and research farm expands opportunities

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    The university's new teaching and research farm in Ashe County features an 1880s farm house, a 100-year-old barn and a brick ranch to house four sustainable development majors who help manage the farm. (Photo by Marie Freeman)

Mary Pope wants to someday raise goats on a sustainable farm. Her classmate Sean Sullivan plans to be self-sufficient by growing his own food, while Chris Lubert hopes to have a farm of his own.

"I see myself having animals and a garden and being into the community aspect. For me, it makes more sense and is the first step in combating issues like our food and oil crises. So many people don't know where food comes from," said Pope, a student majoring in sustainable development at Appalachian State University.

She and her peers are gaining the experience they need to achieve their goals at the university's Sustainable Development Teaching and Research Farm.

Appalachian's sustainable development program operated a farm for several years on leased land in Valle Crucis to educate students and assist local farmers in researching best practices. Now, thanks to a recent acquisition of 369 acres from the estate of Beulah and Reeves Vannoy, the university moved its operations to neighboring Ashe County in Fall 2011—and faculty and students are excited about the property's significant expansion of opportunities related to sustainable agriculture and agroforestry, forest and watershed management, and livestock production.

The new farm continues to be an important community resource, now with an added feature: free-range turkeys and heritage breed cows. These are elements the previous farm did not have space to support.

"The new farm provides much greater opportunity for crop and livestock teaching and research, and we can also add additional activities in sustainable forest management, which is important as many folks around here harvest only through clear-cutting," said Christof den Biggelaar, associate professor of sustainable development.

Introduction of livestock

The decline of heritage breeds of livestock concerns farmers and agriculture educators alike. "With commercial agriculture, we've focused on high yield and left behind the American heritage breeds that are well adapted to place, such as the Southern Highlands. We're now in danger of losing some of these livestock breeds and the genetic diversity that's important to successful agriculture," said Anne Fanatico, an assistant professor of sustainable development.

With help from community partner Mountain Works Sustainable Development, the university has introduced four grass-feeding cows to its Ashe County pastures: two Belted Galloways, a working breed well adapted to cold, rugged climates, and two Dexters, known as a three-purpose breed because they can be used for labor, milking and meat. Both are currently listed as "recovering" breeds by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

A poultry specialist, Fanatico also has introduced free-range broad-breasted Bronze turkeys and is seeking approval from the university's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to add free-range chickens later this year for both egg and meat production. Animals raised using sustainable methods are generally healthy due to ample outdoor access, may have nutritional benefits in their meat and eggs, and prove gentle on the environment.

Hard work, great rewards

Within the coming months, the university plans to install a greenhouse to begin its 2012 crops and renew its popular Community Supported Agriculture project that provides produce to local residents. Pigs will be added to its livestock sometime next year.

The Ashe County property has not operated as a farm for about four years and a lot of prep work is required to bring it back to life, but students are excited. "It's a really great opportunity because it's new and we get to see a farm from its beginning. There's so much to do," said senior Jennifer Warren.

With the added driving distance to the farm (it's about a 35-minute commute from campus), faculty members arrange for each of their classes to include an 8-hour lab there four Fridays during the semester, instead of shorter, more frequent labs. Hard work gets accomplished and the faculty and students have the added benefit of eating lunch together.

"So far, so good," said den Biggelaar. "Students like the format as they can really work on one task and see it through completion."

"They get to see more, and it allows for more extensive learning," said Fanatico.

"I think it's really great that the university has this farm," said student Ellen Mason. "It's hands-on experience—much better than being in class reading a book."

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