James Madison University

“Farmers know all the dirt”

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: April 26, 2012

PHOTO: Caitlyn Boyer works in dirtTo get a taste of what it takes to sustainably grow 60,000 pounds of produce each year, eight JMU students ventured to Clagett Farm and let their inner gardeners take root.

The focus of the Alternative Weekend Break trip from March 23-25 was to teach students about food justice from the perspective of the 285-acre farm. While learning how Clagett brings fresh food to community members of all income levels, the student volunteers lent their hands to the physical tasks that will make the upcoming season possible.

As a functional educational program of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland’s Clagett Farm donates 40 percent of its produce to the Capital Area Food Bank and sells the rest to the public through a community supported agriculture program. In 2011, the farm donated 24,479 pounds of produce to eight local social service organizations that provide it to people in need.

Although the cold, rainy and gray weather was not ideal for a weekend spent outdoors, “everyone was really easy going and had a lot of positive comments,” ISAT staff and trip learning partner Caitlin Boyer said. “Everyone was really into food justice and sustainability, and came with background knowledge from their classes…they were in it for real and they knew what it was about.”

On Friday the group drove 2 ˝ hours to the farm in Upper Marlboro, where they stayed in a cabin about 10 minutes away at Duncan’s Camping Ground and spent the evening toasting marshmallows over a campfire. Saturday and Sunday revolved around the farm work under the direction of Carrie Vaughn, the vegetable production manager.

“I could see that a lot of them haven’t really planted vegetables but once they were told how to do it they were fine,” said Boyer. “Carrie was good at giving the group an assignment and I think it was good place to learn, a good atmosphere.”

Vaughn said she was impressed with how eager and willing the JMU students were to get the work done, and that they stayed late both days to get a little extra work finished. 

PHOTO: Students work with plants“It’s a real pleasure to work with people that have chosen to be here and keep a good pace and a positive attitude,” said Vaughn. Remembering her own time-crunched college days, she hoped the simple, repetitive tasks the students performed over the weekend would be a nice break from academics.

“One of the things I love about farming is that every day is different, and I can look back on a job that I’ve finished and feel a real, concrete accomplishment,” said Vaughn. “Schoolwork is valuable, of course, but sometimes you need a chance to do something tangible, where the value is straightforward.” 

The major project began with a $500 grant from JMU Community Service-Learning, which the farm used to purchase the 4,000 strawberry plants the volunteers put into the ground on Saturday. Last year the farm harvested at least 450 pounds of strawberries from May through June, but the new plants included two varieties that produce fruit late in the growing season, and two that will be “everbearing” during different parts of the year. Strawberries require extra care if they are transplanted into an outdoor garden, so after using farm equipment to drop the plants into the ground the students helped to complete the process by hand, burying the seedlings at the right depth with enough room for root growth.

When rain hit midday the volunteers retreated inside and helped seed some peppers and tomatoes into trays to grow in the greenhouse. Instead of using a store-bought fertilizer, the students learned to create organic fertilizer by mixing soils and sifting compost with kelp, peat and other materials to achieve different ratios of nutrients.

Sunday was still too wet to finish the strawberry planting, so one group of the students spent the afternoon taking kernels off dried popcorn cobs, for sale and for planting, and left with their own cobs to grow and eat. The second group spent the morning working with plants in the green house, transitioning them to outdoor weather in a process known as “hardening off” the plants.

“Seedlings in the greenhouse are not exposed to wind or extreme temperatures,” explained Vaughn. “Their growth is lush, but their stems are a little too tender.  We move them into a transition area outside for a few days before we plant them in the ground, which gives the plants a chance to toughen up.” 

To create this enclosure, four volunteers piled heavy pallets on top of landscape fabric, which is a re-usable, woven plastic weed barrier, to create a surface for the plants up off the ground. After protecting the enclosure from groundhogs with a short wall of plastic sheeting, the volunteers moved 100 trays out from the greenhouse, holding about 12,800 plants.

By the end of the weekend, “everyone seemed on board to do something like this again,” Boyer said. “They’re into this stuff, they believe in it and they want to get their hands dirty, not just learn about it in class.”

Senior Helena Kozlowski said she most enjoyed planting strawberries and doing physical work in soil, knowing the plants could produce fruit the following season.

“The thing that I took away from the farm trip is that you learn by experience, and that all farmers have different ways of farming which are unique to them and unique to their situation and farm,” said Kozlowski. “You can't learn that in a text book, it is more like a trial and error concept.”

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