September 13, 2011

Peer Review: Students Get Hands Dirty at Dilmun Hill and MacDaniels Nut Grove

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Dilmun Hill Student Farm provides a hands-on experience for students and MacDaniels Nut Grove are student-run research centers that work on developing sustainable agriculture practices. The Dilmun Hill student farm uses organic practices to grow its produce.MacDaniels Nut Grove focuses on agroforestry and is used for multiple classes.  Prof. Ken Mudge, horticulture, the MacDaniels Nut Grove Director said, “We have developed this site as a teaching site – it’s the only one I’ve heard about anywhere. Students have done most of [these projects].”

The farm is divided into areas devoted to various student projects – such as the Growing Mosaics Garden and the Market Garden. The land under a large part of the farm is contaminated by heavy metals, so the students are developing the best management practice. This is in coordination with the Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities project, funded by the National Institute of Health, which aims to reduce the exposure that results from soil contamination in urban areas.

Currently, the only solution is to grow plants that are not rooted in the soil to limit contamination. The project involves regularly tissue testing several areas of the land to measure the uptake of heavy metals in the plants grown there. Other projects involve experimenting with sheet mulching, and raising up the beds to limit the contamination in edible foods.

The focus of the Growing Mosaics garden is permaculture – the practice of combining ecology and ethics. The garden attempts to reduce the heavy metal toxicity by growing ornamental plants, or plants with medicinal properties. Only ornamental flowers from these plants are sold at Cornell-based markets.

Elizabeth Burrichter ‘12, a student manager, explained the unique set-up of the farm. “It’s very diversified, and situated within a university, allowing us to experiment with different growing styles, and all different varieties we want to try.”

The Market Garden is essentially the vegetable patch spanning approximately 1.5 acres of land. The focus is on experiential learning, so several unorthodox varieties are grown alongside traditional vegetables. The entire garden is maintained with absolutely no spraying of fertilizers. Compost produced from Cornell enhances soil fertility at Dilmun Hill, so the farm maintains a local nutrient cycle.

The projects in the MacDaniels Nut Grove were focused on a different type of crop entirely. The forest farm is more involved with experimenting with non-timber forest products. The aim of the area is also to provide the students with an outdoor classroom environment that students develop each year as a class project. In the past, student classes have been assigned a specific area of the grove, and asked to make the practices more efficient.

A large part of the focus of the farm has been on mushroom production. The students have been responsible for the inoculation of the logs with the Shitake mushroom spawn. Over time, they have experimented with the most efficient type of logs, and the best way to store them, in order to ensure the best mushroom crop.

Students have also used the forest to grow walnuts, raspberries, and pawpaws, in addition to branching out into medicinal herbs such as ginseng. Other smaller projects have involved building ramps to make certain areas more accessible, as well as developing a more efficient irrigation system.

The students also have a “forest feast” every semester, where they are taught to prepare meals directly from the produce they get from the Nut Grove. The idea is to incorporate sustainability in their daily lives – which involves eating fresher foods as well.

Peter Christine ‘13, another farm manager, found his experience valuable. “[Dilmun Hill is] an opportunity for students to learn about the actual management of the farm, rather than working for someone else…the students are making all the decisions.” The commitment of the students is extensive – the managers usually work at the farm full-time over their summers. Most of the hands, though, are volunteers, who are given access to fresh food in return for their labor.

Dilmun Hill invites students to explore the farm’s projects and opportunities at an Open House each year while sampling several fresh foods and partaking in different activties, such as mushroom inoculation. In addition, Dilmun has work parties twice a week, as well as several events over the course of the year – including beer brewing in October.

Original Author: Rujuta Natu