Recently I was invited by Virginia Tech's VT Engage office on a visit of a few sites around the area where they place VISTAs, which was great because many of the sites are related to food security and local food. One site that I found pretty interesting was VT's Kentland Farm. The site has mostly been used for research by agriculture, horticulture and entomology researchers, but recently part of the farm has been turned over to production for the cafeterias at Virginia Tech.
About 6 acres (out of a total of 2,000!) are being planted using organic practices expressly for use by Dining Services. The program has grown from it's humble beginnings as an herb plot in 2009 to growing vegetables such as cucumbers and broccoli and fruit such as blackberries. Dining Services also makes use of the produce grown on other areas of the farm that researchers don't need. The crops are harvested by cafeteria staff as well as volunteers from the student body and surrounding community. I have the say the site is beautiful, as the 5th row of every crop is farmscaping, which means it's planted with cosmos and zinnias! That was a nice surprise and of course is helpful when trying to attract a variety of pollinators.
What I liked most about this tour was getting to hear about some of the challenges faced by Alison Reeves, the farm manager, and Rial Tombes, the Sustainability Coordinator for Dining Services. Rial's job is to work with Dining Services to figure out what produce they would want for future menus, and then bringing that information back to Alison so she can plan to plant what the cafeteria can use. This sounds a lot easier than it is, it turns out. What do you do about the fact that a lot of the campus empties out just as most crops come to fruition? What about trying to balance growing your own food with the fact that VT buys some food from local growers? You don't want to put them out of business. Also, managing the size and visual quality of the produce is important to the cafeteria. For example tomatoes can't be too big or they don't fit in the slicers used to prep them. You have to remember that cafeteria tools are set up for "traditional" produce, not odd shaped heirloom tomatoes! Another recent challenge for the team was a bumper crop of cucumbers. They couldn't use all of them raw, and there was too much red tape to get through to get permission to pickle them. (Extras ended up being donated to local food banks.) Luckily for Alison and Rial Kentland just got freezing and blanching capabilities, so future overages can be frozen.
I find all of these challenges really fascinating. It's eye opening to understand the nuances of food chains and the challenges faced by small and medium farms in trying to engage them. The history of VT's cafeteria farm is apparently a bit different than other schools doing similar work- in most schools, the agriculture department approaches the cafeteria, saying "hey, let us grow some of your produce." At VT, it was the cafeteria approaching the agriculture department. This seems to make the transition a bit easier as the cafeteria at VT is actively looking for ways to use the produce being grown for them.
If any of this interests you follow the Farms and Fields blog here to keep up with the goings on at Kentland Farm, or stop by the Farms and Fields cafeteria in Owens to sample the food!
And for your entertainment, here is a list of actual questions I have asked on farm tours:
-"How does a silo work?"
-"Why does corn on the edge of the field always look stunted?"
-"What do you mean this is a meat chicken?"
Questions I SHOULD have asked:
-"Can I step here?"
-"Is this fence electrified?"
Sigh. The Long Island is strong with this one.