Joining a national student farm movement and improving dining options on campus, Sewanee hopes to change the way its students look at food. The university has reopened its farm after 40 years and hired a manager to oversee the farm’s daily operations. Over the summer, McClurg Dining Hall became university-operated, providing more opportunities to serve locally grown, whole foods.
The move toward healthier and sustainable living practices has been years in the making. Nearly a decade ago, Biology Professor David Haskell started teaching a course that examined ecology and sustainable agriculture through hands-on learning in an organic garden. His idea helped prompt recommendations by the Food Working Group, a committee of Sewanee faculty, staff and students, to begin an educational farm with a full-time manager who would integrate farm production with dining services.
As Sewanee works toward becoming a national leader in sustainability and environmental education, bettering food on campus and students’ involvement with food is a major component, says Director of Sustainability Integration Marvin Pate.
“The farm is not primarily to produce, but to work and learn,” he says. “The focus is on agriculture education. Students will learn about what it means to eat whole foods that are locally grown, and what that involves.”
Farm manager Gina Raicovich will help students get involved on the farm by teaching labs, offering workshops and creating internships and work-study jobs. “I think a lot of students will be attracted to [the farm] for the learning opportunities it provides,” she says.
Domain Manager Nate Wilson says he believes that learning about food and where it comes from is essential in a liberal arts education. “Agriculture in my opinion is fundamental to who we are as a society,” he says. “Now we’re losing the connection.”
Rick Wright, head chef at McClurg, also says he thinks it is important for students to be aware of what they are putting on their plates. Wright has been working closely with Raicovich to discuss which foods the university farm can provide to the dining hall. Raicovich has planted soybeans in the university organic garden, which Wright says can be used to make tofu for the salad bar. She is also managing a beef growing operation with 20 steers on campus that will provide meat to McClurg in October, he says.
“The goal is to have a fully engaged dining hall,” Wright says. “I want students to ask what’s in the food. You have to be aware of what you’re doing to yourself.”
Although the university farm will provide some food to McClurg, the majority of whole-food offerings will come from other local farmers. One of the main draws of having the university run the dining hall is the ability to obtain food from a variety of sources, Wright says. He plans to acquire whole and organic foods through the Sewanee-area food hub, an umbrella of vendors and farmers in the community who have pledged to provide their goods to local restaurants, businesses and kitchens.
Raicovich says changing the food landscape on campus will take the effort of many local farmers, and while she hopes to expand the university farm, she says it will never produce so much that the food hub can’t compete. She is working with a farm advisory committee to create a three- to five-year plan for the farm including budgeting, infrastructure and expansion.
Pate says that he hopes the farm will expand to include chickens and other animals, but that it was important to grow vegetables well first.
Wilson says that the cattle were a short-term project because all would go to market in the fall, but that the university may try it again. “We have thought about more animals, but we haven’t made any decisions,” he says.
Pate says he hopes Sewanee will aspire to become a national leader in the student farm movement. He has been researching other universities as case studies on which to base a model.
There are about 100 colleges in the nation that have student-run farms or organic gardens, among them Bowdoin College, Clemson University, Stanford University and Oberlin College. Tennessee Tech is the only other college in Tennessee with a student-operated farm.
- Avery Shackelford