VISTAs develop local farm programs

richie-2

Photo by Catherine Campbell (C’18)

By Kelsey Arbuckle

Staff Writer

Although the program was started in 1965 as a national poverty alleviation initiative, the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) project is relatively new to the mountain. The VISTA program is a partnership between the university and the South Cumberland Community Fund.

AmeriCorps VISTA members work on capacity-building instead of direct service in surrounding communities. Though capacity-building tasks and activities to create, expand, or strengthen systems or process are the goal, direct service—the act of providing services to identified recipients—may sometimes come into play. The University Farm is fortunate to have four VISTA members: Kacee Carter, Sarah Hess (C’16), Shelby Koebley (C’14), and Ritchie Wai. Each farm volunteer has a unique agenda inspiring his or her work.

Carter is the communications director, who works to provide the farm and its annual visitors with educational and marketing materials so that they may better understand agricultural practices on the Plateau. She also hopes to implement what they learn in effort to fight the food desert, an urban or rural area in which it is difficulty to buy affordable or good quality fresh food. Carter is also spending many hours putting together a website for the University Farm. She is starting up a nonprofit with local community members who aspire to supply local schools with all the information they need to start and sustain gardens of their own. Carter worked very hard on the Hunger Walk stickers one may see on water bottles and cars around campus as well.

“I feel such a connectedness working within the community of Sewanee and surrounding areas. Helping others see their own strengths on a hot day at the farm, to sharing my creative side when called upon, day in and day out I feel a true sense of fulfillment and contentment. I’m happier on Mondays these days, let’s just put it that way. The Mountain is rich in culture and community; I feel lucky to be a part of it!”

Carter is dedicated to doing remarkable things.Farm VISTA is doing some really cultivating work (pun intended). Hess’s VISTA project centers around season extension. Season extension is a way to manipulate the environment to make plants believe it is their time to grow. Season extending is important because it allows farmers and gardeners to extend their growing season, meaning one can grow lettuce in the summer heat or grow lettuce in the freezing snowy months of winter. Hess states, “If someone must rely on selling their goods, then growing crops even 9 months out of the year is better than the just growing in normal season!” Sarah spoke passionately about how much she enjoys working with students and community members. The relationships she forms are the most important to her, making her line of work extremely rewarding. Hess’s work and passion towards it is remarkable.

Koebley is the organic certification coordinator at the University Farm. She is focusing on improving economic development for local growers in the surrounding communities. She is working to obtain an organic certification for producers of organic food and other organic agricultural products for the University Farm. Along the way she is creating a shared resource for farmers who are interested in organic farming. Shelby is passionate about supporting and developing communities in a healthful and sustainable way. To say the least, Shelby’s work is impressive and is a real game changer on the farm.

Last, but certainly not least, is Ritche Wai. Wai works to construct aquaponics, a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic animals supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, while writing curriculum and operating procedures to implement on the University Farm. Ritchie also distributes this information to the surrounding communities. Wai views his work as opportunity to learn and grow while developing relationships. Wai takes pride in sharing his knowledge and experiences with the surrounding communities so he can give others the similar opportunities. Ritchie’s work seems innovative and fascinating.

The VISTA site supervisor, Carolyn Hoagland, had this to say: “Their biggest impact comes from the way they leverage their time and energy with the farm’s resources to build community relationships. Having the VISTAs here enables the farm to do community outreach and set up systems that make the farm’s resources available to the wider community.”

Looking in, one can see that the Farm VISTAs have remarkable qualities. Their dedication, passion, and determination shine through in all aspects of their work. The farm would not be the same place without them.

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