Va. Tech food services farm teaches students more than crop production

AFP Correspondent

BLACKSBURG, Va. (Nov. 24, 2015) — The Virginia Tech Food Services Farm is a way to provide fresh food on campus and an opportunity to feed the growing interest young people are showing in vegetable production.
Alex Hessler, director of the six-acre farm located within the boundaries of the university’s Kentland Farm, discussed the food services activities in a recent telephone interview.
He said the Food Services Farm was created in 2009 as a small garden to give students hands on experience in growing vegetables and the opportunity to earn a minor in Civic Agriculture and Food Minor from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Hessler said the students come from all areas of the college to take the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Practicum that gives them a chance to learn about growing food with hands on experiences and to earn credit toward their degree.
Many of the students have grown up on farms and have an agriculture background, he continued, but for others this is their first agriculture experience.
He said the Food Services Farm reflects a growing interest in young people to learn growing skills and make a living growing fruits and vegetables. He said he sees the demand for local foods growing quickly and a need for farmers, especially young farmers who have new ideas and are excited to build new agricultural systems and expand the knowledge of growing food.
While the farm started as a garden for teaching, it soon filled a need for the university’s food services system to find a source of fresh, locally grown produce.
Students work on the farm during the fall and spring semesters, Hessler said.
In the summer, food service employees and faculty help when students are not on campus.
The students learn about all aspects of growing vegetables, Hessler said. This includes planting, weed management, pest management, harvesting and washing the food.
He said all of the crops except winter squash and pumpkins are grown using organic practices.
Managing insects and pests in the winter squash and pumpkins is very different than managing them in other crops, he said. One of the practices they are considering for these two crops is planting them no-till.
The practicum is designed to help the students understand both conventional and organic approaches to vegetable production, Hessler said. It is meant to prepare them to determine the approach best suited or most appropriate for a particular crop when it is their time to make such decisions.
These decisions have to be based on both the kind of crop and the region in which the farmer is working.  He said the hot, humid climate in the Southeastern U.S. is hard on crops.
The experience on this farm also gives students a stepping stone to pursue a career in agriculture working safely and cooperatively. They are taught to do things efficiently and get them done as quickly as possible.
Hessler said he wants to see his students equipped with diverse skills when they go on to develop a farm of their own or to work on another farm.  He also wants those who go into related agriculture professions to have the knowledge to serve well in those jobs that lend support to working farmers.