Nine billion. That’s how many people will inhabit the earth by 2050. How do we feed nine billion people? How do we feed them well in a way that is both economically and environmentally sustainable? In a way that will make a profit and open new markets for farmers while leaving the planet a place where those nine billion people and their descendants will want to live?
These are some of the big questions being asked and answered by Clemson’s Sustainable Agriculture Program, the centerpiece of which is the Student Organic Farm (SOF), a 15-acre working organic farm and experiential teaching center dedicated to researching profitable, practical sustainable farming techniques that can benefit students and farmers across the state.
The history of the farm
In 2001, the area between Hartwell Lake and Perimeter Road known as “The Bottoms” was primarily being used to test row crop varieties and grow feed for livestock at the Clemson livestock farms.
A group of faculty from the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences (CAFLS) suggested the land be used to create a small market garden that would produce fruits, vegetables and flowers for sale to consumers on campus and in the local community.
That group of faculty included Geoff Zehnder, professor of entomology in the School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences (SAFES) and director of Clemson’s Sustainable Agriculture Program.“We secured a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education training grant and started with four 100-square-foot plots for vegetable production and four small areas for growing medicinal and edible herbs, blueberries and beneficial insect-attracting plants,” said Zehnder.
In 2005, the SOF earned its organic certification from the Organic Certification Program in Clemson’s Department of Plant Industry. Today, with funding from grants and produce sales through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, that former market garden is a productive organic farming operation and a showcase for sustainable farming techniques that advances Clemson’s land-grant heritage of teaching, research and extension and embodies Thomas Green Clemson’s founding vision of an agricultural college that would help the people of South Carolina prosper through instruction and outreach in the agricultural and natural sciences.
The SOF is located on land that is part of an area with a deep agricultural heritage and is now officially named “Calhoun Fields.” The land is said to have first been farmed by Cherokee Indians, then by John C. Calhoun and Clemson himself back in the days when a man’s gait was measured in furrows because he plowed his acreage walking behind a mule-drawn sodbuster. Back long before there was a university or before Clemson President Robert Cook Edwards (1958-1979) saved the land from inundation by Hartwell Lake.
Back in the days when the food we put on our tables and in our mouths was born of the sweat that stung our eyes and our own callused and mud-streaked hands.
What is sustainable agriculture?
Sustainable agriculture is more than just an abstract idea. The results of a strong sustainable agriculture operation are measurable as increased profitability, decreased farm debt and purchase of off-farm feed and fertilizer, and reduced reliance on government subsidies. This is accomplished by working with nature rather than against it.
On a perfect sustainable agriculture operation, there is no bare ground. Clean water flows through the farm’s ditches and streams. Wildlife is abundant and the farm landscape hosts a diversity of vegetation. Crops are diversified and plant and animal agriculture is integrated, reducing market risk and increasing profit. Solar energy is captured and used across the farm systems. The water cycle is managed in a way that reduces surface runoff, soil surface evaporation, and drought and flood incidence, and increases transpiration by plants and seepage into underground reservoirs. And a well-functioning mineral cycle moves nutrients from the soil through the crops and animals and back to the soil through on-farm feeding of livestock, thoughtful manure and crop residue management, and the use of catch crops to reduce nutrient-leaching losses.
The SOF aims to show Clemson agricultural and natural resources students and farmers across the state of South Carolina that, done right, sustainable farming can make more money for farmers, feed more people more efficiently, conserve natural resources and support surrounding businesses by circulating more dollars within the local economy.“The Student Organic Farm is a working farm,” Zehnder says. ìBut it’s also an experiential learning environment. It’s a place where we can demonstrate farming systems and strategies that are economically, ecologically and socially sustainable.”
Sustainable organic farming in action
Shawn Jadrnicek, a former farmer and South Carolina extension agent, manages the SOF’s day-to-day operations, including soliciting and managing volunteer and paid student labor, giving tours to curious farmers, students and extension agents, and designing and implementing many of the sustainable agriculture systems currently being used. The SOF is a sort of canvas for Jadrnicek’s farming imagination.
“That small market garden expanded and evolved over the years,” Zehnder says. “But Shawn’s work has really taken the farm to the next level.”
There are five greenhouses on the farm and each is oriented to take maximum advantage of passive heating and cooling techniques. A series of 55-gallon drums on the south side of one greenhouse collects solar heat during the day and emits that heat into the greenhouse at night.
In winter each solar-heated barrel produces over 9,000 BTUs of heat per day, which means that the heat generated from all the barrels is equivalent to burning one gallon of propane.
“The double-poly greenhouses with the 55-gallon drums give up to 13 degrees of frost protection without spending a penny on electricity or propane,” Jadrnicek said.
To augment the passive heating system, the greenhouses utilize a hydronic closed-loop active heating system that pumps warm water through pipes and a grid of tubing. Plant flats are placed directly on the tubing grid and kept warm by heat transfer. In this way, heat is placed exactly where it’s needed at the soil underneath the plants rather than wasting energy by heating the entire cavernous greenhouse space.
The greenhouses themselves are constructed of two layers of greenhouse plastic to reduce condensation and create insulation, and they are oriented to take advantage of the prevailing breezes. As the breezes move across the land, they are cooled by the ponds before entering the greenhouses. On extremely hot days, a recirculating fountain in an adjacent pond creates evaporative cooling. A series of solar-powered vents with expanding and contracting wax-filled switches allows hot air to escape and cool air to fill in behind it.
A rainwater collecting system captures water and feeds a cistern and a series of ponds used for irrigation and aquaculture. The ponds are strategically placed to control temperature and create microclimates. Plants and vegetation around the ponds capture and channel wind to the greenhouses. The ponds are also designed to create microclimates that provide a diversity of habitat for a variety of plants.
Some of the greenhouses partially encapsulate the ponds. Heat captured by the pond water is released into the greenhouses. Tilapia fingerlings are overwintered in one green-house pond and then transferred to outdoor ponds when the weather warms. The water in which the tilapia are raised, rich in organic matter, is used as fertilizer.
Laura Lengnick, director of the sustainable agriculture program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., and lead author on the recently released USDA report, Climate Change and Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation, says that the SOF’s microclimate and keyline management practices offer examples of ways to create resilience to climate change.
“Shawn is doing some really groundbreaking work in managing microclimates and the large-scale movement of air and water across the landscape,” says Lengnick. “These features are unique among college farms.”
The SOF is also experimenting with a prototype soldier fly digester. The digester is used to recycle food and plant waste from campus dining halls and the farm. The soldier fly larvae consume the waste. The larvae are then processed in the Clemson Biosystems Engineering laboratory, where they are dehydrated and pressed for oil to make biodiesel. The remaining soldier fly meal can be used to feed chickens or fish. The digester is connected to a greenhouse. CO2 and heat from the digester are captured inside the greenhouse, while the greenhouse warms the digester and extends the life of the soldier flies and their larvae.“We estimate that the school could produce over 4,000 gallons of oil and $40,000 in high protein meal if we used all the food waste on campus in soldier fly digesters,” Jadrnicek says.
An enormous compost pile is cozied up against one of the greenhouses so its heat can help warm plants in winter. Water pipes run through the compost pile transferring heat into the hydronic system and reducing energy use.
The SOF maintains soil health by cover cropping rather than using fertilizers from offsite sources.
“Every part of the farm is cover cropped at some point during the year,” Zehnder says. “Cover cropping provides soil organic matter and nutrients and keeps fertilizer costs to an absolute minimum. Cover crops also suppress weeds and insects.”
Even the crop rows are planted with sustainability and efficiency in mind. They are planted on the high points of the fields so they can stay dry on the low-lying piece of land. The beds slope off the rows at a half-percent grade or less, allowing the fields to drain gradually without water loss or soil erosion.
Teaching and outreach at the SOF
The work that’s being done at the SOF isn’t theoretical. Like a stone dropped in a still pond, Jadrnicek and Zehnder hope the sustainable farming practices on display ripple outward.“The ultimate goal of the Student Organic Farm is to try techniques that will help farmers increase profitability and sustainability, and decrease farm debt. We also want to ignite the imaginations of the next generation of farmers,” Zehnder says.
Extension agents from across South Carolina visit the SOF to receive training in sustainable and organic farming practices. The agents then impart what they learn to producers interested in implementing sustainable farming practices and diversifying into emerging markets, including organic production.
“Producers are becoming more interested in organic and sustainable farming practices,” says Danny Howard, Greenville County extension agent. “The hands-on demonstrations we can provide through the Student Organic Farm are the best teacher of all. And current organic producers who are having challenges with weed, disease and insect control can learn how to solve these problems through the SOF’s outreach.”
During the 2012 Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference in Greenville, which was attended by more than 800 participants, the SOF conducted educational tours for agricultural stakeholders from across the Southeast.
Lee Meyer, extension professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Agricultural Economics, praises the SOF for showing farmers that sustainable farming systems are profitable and practical.
“When I talk about sustainable or organic farming alternatives, farmers often say to me, ‘That’s a great idea in theory, but you can’t do that it in the real world!’ Well, yes you can, and you can see it in action at Clemson’s Student Organic Farm,” Meyer says. “Geoff and Shawn listen to farmers’ problems and try to both find solutions and demonstrate their effectiveness.”
Students and faculty from a wide array of disciplines use the SOF for teaching and research. Horticulture professor Ellen Vincent takes her students on tours of the SOF.
“The Student Organic Farm is a great place for students to see cutting-edge sustainability practices in action,” Vincent says. “Geoff and Shawn have created a powerful environment for students to learn and grow.”
The SOF has also been the focus of Creative Inquiry projects in aquaponics, vegetable transplant, greenhouse design and architecture. One three-year Creative Inquiry project headed by associate professor of architecture Dan Harding led to the design and construction of several new structures at the SOF and the rebranding of The Bottoms as “Calhoun Fields.”
“When we were trying to understand the DNA of The Bottoms area, we decided that our agriculture programs are one of our strongest traditions,” said William Craig, a senior architecture major who worked on the project. “Agriculture is the reason we’re here in the first place. We wouldn’t have a Clemson University if Thomas Green Clemson hadn’t looked at those fields and imagined how they could be used to educate for the future. They are special, fertile fields. They are where the roots of this university lie.”
Organic produce for sale here!
The Student Organic Farm distributes organic produce and partially funds its research and outreach initiatives through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. CSA shareholders pay an upfront seasonal membership fee that covers production costs in exchange for a weekly share of local in-season organic food.
For 2013, the SOF will offer two 14-week shares, the Summer Share (April 30 – Aug. 1), and the Fall Share (Aug. 27 – Nov. 28). Some of the produce that shareholders can expect to receive:
Arugula, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cilantro, collards, green onions, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard greens, pac choi, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips
Basil, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, green onions, herbs, okra, peppers, potatoes, snap beans, zucchini, yellow squash, sweet corn, Swiss chard, tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupe
Arugula, basil, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, cauliflower, eggplant, garlic, green onions, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard greens, okra, pac choi, peppers, radishes, spinach, storage onions, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, winter squash
Fruit shares are also available during the Summer Share period. Though the fruit is not certified organic, the blackberries are treated organically, while the peaches, harvested from a local farm in Seneca, are minimally sprayed.
Learn more about the CSA by visiting
www.clemson.edu/sustainableag/csaprogram.html or by calling 864-656-5057.