The University Farm: How students, goats and fish connect to sustainability

Vanessa Moss (C’20) in Hightunnel #1 at the University Farm. Photo by Luke Williamson (C’21).

By Szonja Szurop
Contributing Writer

Are you interested in sustainability, but you don’t know how to get involved here on the Domain? I have good news for you: by eating at McClurg or doing goat yoga, you are already a part of some green activities. To understand these processes more deeply, I asked Carolyn Hoagland, the manager of the University Farm, about food production, its impact on the environment, and most importantly, the role of students in this system.

If you take the effort to walk a half mile to the University Farm, you will immediately hear the happy bleating of the goat population of Sewanee. It might surprise you that these animals aren’t solely kept for their cuteness; they also have a key role in maintaining a good soil composition by dropping something more expensive than gold for the land.

Goat manure acts as a natural fertilizer and also attracts the dung beetle, a native insect, which lays its eggs in animal excrement. When the beetle’s eggs become larvae, they dig holes into the ground and loosen it, increasing its fertility. Consequently, the soil becomes healthier in a sustainable way, without the farmers applying harmful chemicals.

There are many other uses of farm animals as well, such as goat yoga and meat purposes. Yeah, meat purposes. I’m not saying that the baby goats participating in therapy programs get slaughtered, but don’t be surprised if the yummy load on your plate comes from the other pen of the Farm.

The University Farm isn’t only a meat, vegetable, and fruit supplier of McClurg. It also helps with the food waste of the dining hall’s and Stirling’s Coffee House too. The slice of tomato you chewed on, but left uneaten ends up on the Farm’s compost heap, which is capable of taking 75 pounds of food waste daily.

An alternative method called sheet composting is used to prevent smell. Another innovation was the idea of Chris Hornsby (C’19), who works on a project aiming to reduce the size of the compost pile by the use of the black soldier fly. The species’ larva is well known for its capacity to eat twice its weight of compost every day.

This way, the weight of the compost can be reduced by ninety percent, and with the freshly-built larva composting facility, off-season composting will be possible too. This method ensures recycling and helps to produce natural fertilizer, so nutrition-poor areas can be planted with crops.

There are other programs that are the result of Sewanee students’ creativity. Connor Stack (C’20) initiated the building of an aquaponic system last year, which provides nutrition for plants from fish manure. This method uses a five-feet-deep pond with six-10,000 small fish in it. The small fish were chosen because they are easy to replace and indicate the failures of the system well.

The fish produce waste in the form of ammonia, which is pumped into a biofilter where organisms convert it to nitrogen or other nitrogen-based substances. The nitrogen-rich water is then directed under the plant beds, in which different species of vegetables can be found floating. The advantage of the aquaponic system is that it’s easily maintainable, and the plants could be changed anytime for the farmers’ wish.

If you feel inspired to check out the farm with your new found knowledge about all these amazing ongoing projects, you will be happy to hear that goats don’t have days off. The University Farm is open for visits anytime, so you can take that half-mile-long walk and relax, learn about agroecology, or just help out with the gardening whenever you want. Ready to go?

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