A sustainable agriculture program, developed around the renovation and use of Shepherd’s Tabler Farm, was launched this fall.
A $600,000, five-year cost-sharing agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service allowed Shepherd to build a high tunnel greenhouse and make other improvements to the Tabler Farm. Students from the James Rumsey Technical Institute electrical technician program did electrical work, and the Shepherd University Foundation’s Women Investing in Shepherd (WISH) awarded the Institute of Environmental and Physical Sciences a $28,750 grant that will be used to install a 2.1 kilowatt-hour off-grid solar electric system and cellular LTE-based Wi-Fi at the farm, which has received financial and in-kind help from a variety of other sources.
“It’s fantastic,” said Dr. Peter Vila, associate professor of environmental and physical sciences and director of the Veterans to Agriculture Program. “It’s a beautiful piece of land. Historically it’s been part of this community. It’s prime agricultural land that is extraordinarily well suited for what we’re doing.”
A High Tunnel Installation class being taught this fall by Haroun Hallack, the farm’s manager, focuses on how to set up a greenhouse to extend the growing season and how to grow food in a controlled environment.
“What we’re doing is to design, build, plant, cultivate, and harvest crops,” Hallack said. “This fall we are planting mostly cool weather crops like broccoli, lettuce, and beets.”
The students in the class have learned how to create planting beds, and on a recent fall morning Hallack taught them how to set up an irrigation drip hose system that runs the length of the beds.
“It’s going very well,” Hallack said. “I am lucky to have a group of enthusiastic students who are really interested in the program.”
The goal of the sustainable agriculture program is to teach students how to grow their own food and sell it. Hallack said there is plenty of farmland in both Berkeley and Jefferson counties with the potential to support more food production.
“A lot of farms in these counties are dormant,” he said. “If some of that land could be made available, it could be put back into production and we could aggregate and distribute what is being grown.”
Hallack’s class is the first to take place in the new Sustainable Agriculture Program, which offers bachelor’s degrees and one-year certificates in sustainable food production and agricultural entrepreneurship and includes the Veterans to Agriculture Program.
Currently several professors are utilizing the farm as a lab, including Dr. Sytil Murphy, associate professor of physics, and Steven Shaffer, lecturer of environmental studies, who are conducting drone exercises and training students how to use drones for agriculture. Vila’s Hydrology class spends time at Tabler Farm measuring moisture infiltration in soils. Dr. Cecilia Melton, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, is utilizing the farm for her Soil Science class.
While environmental studies professors are making good use of the property, Vila said a lot of work is still needed in order to expand the farming operations and offer more agriculture classes. Several outbuildings need to be repaired, including the old milking parlor.
“Once the milking parlor is restored, we will be able to offer hydroponics, mushroom growing, and aquaponics,” Vila said. “When we install fencing, we can have small animals such as chickens, goats, and sheep, and once there’s a facility, we can teach composting.”
Vila envisions putting crops in the fields, and planting peaches, kiwis, and pears to go along with the small apple orchard that’s established. Dr. Jeff Groff, chair of the Institute of Environmental and Physical Sciences, will establish an apiary for teaching and research purposes. Vila believes that giving students the opportunity to help set up the farm provides a good learning experience for them.
“It’s a matter of slowly building the infrastructure so we can offer courses that are meaningful and show the techniques that are involved,” Vila said. “Because we’re starting from essentially a plot of land, we can teach students how to establish their own business from the ground up.”
The students in Hallack’s High Tunnel Installation class are gaining a lot of knowledge about how to get a farm started. Wayne Braunstein, an Army veteran who lives in Kearneysville, enrolled because he is interested in acquiring new skills, and the program gives veterans like himself an opportunity to farm.
“This is turning theory into action and it is really fascinating,” Braunstein said. “I’ve learned that there’s an awful lot of planning for a commercial food production business. I’ve learned a lot about setting up a greenhouse, and how to manage the beds and planting operations. As we go, we’ll be exposed to more things that are part of the real-world experience of running a food production business.”
Braunstein owns some property that he might use for food production. He’s also interested in working with veterans either through internships or by letting them work a piece of his land to gain experience before they invest a lot of their money into farming.
Guirlene Altidor, a non-declared major from Berkeley Springs, and Carley Murray, an environmental studies major from Lumberport, enrolled in the class because they are interested in growing their own food.
“I love to plant, I love gardens, and it’s a good opportunity to learn,” Altidor said.
“It’s such a good thing to know how to do—to grow your own food,” Murray added.
For more information about Shepherd’s sustainable agriculture program, visit www.shepherd.edu/sustainable-agriculture.