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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

SCCC’s Student Farm Grows Interest in Agriculture

Erin Shroll, supervisor of the agriculture and horticulture program at Sussex County Community College (SCCC), made her way across a field at the Student Farm in Newton on November 3 to talk permaculture, sustainable farming practices and the future of the program.

The 5-acre parcel of land, leased through the Food Shed Alliance, is a part of the Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise program (SAgE) which works to make affordable farmland accessible to farmers. SCCC’s Student Farm is used as an outdoor classroom for students pursuing degrees in agriculture business, horticulture science or sustainable gardening certificates.

“We started leasing it in 2020 and it was a very slow start, understandably. This is the first year we had more substantial production,” said Shroll. “Our goal is education, and to produce for the culinary department. Which we also do at the main campus greenhouse by using hydroponics.”

A larger greenhouse is located at SCCC’s main campus. Photo by C. Tamulonis,11/2023.

SCCC’s Culinary Institute is opening the Arbor Restaurant on November 10, a learning and dining facility at the McGuire Technical Education Center in Newton and plans to source the farm for some of its offerings.

So far, the Student Farm has produced a diverse cover crop, a pollinator garden and the beginnings of a food forest on the perimeter of the property, complete with pear trees.

Students learn everything from growing food to soil science and there is a variety of soils on the 5 acres to work with.

“There are some areas that have never been tilled, and the cover crop plot soil is different from the back, which has a lot more clay,” said Shroll.

The students have also been making biochar by digging an earth kiln and covering burning wood with soil to get an anaerobic condition that creates charcoal. The method goes back to the Indigenous people of the Amazon who added charcoal to the earth to create fertile soil.

“I think we’re going to see the use of biochar more and more as it adds a lot to the soil,” said Shroll. “We’re also activating it with compost worm extract from our worm farm to give it more of a biological activity in the beginning. This increases aeration and reduces compaction.” (Something the students have been addressing with the cover crop plot.)

Students broadcasted the cover crop seed by hand.

“They are really hard workers,” said Shroll. “Some of our students transfer to four-year colleges, and some complete the two-year degree and go to work on their family farm. I’m always amazed how they do their academic work along with everything else.”

Students working on the farm in Newton. Photo courtesy of SCCC.

A graduate of Oregon State University with a master of science in horticulture, Shroll says permaculture is her main interest. Her teaching focuses on creating systems that are perineal, by mimicking patterns of nature, and incorporating diversity into the fields.

“Having diversity of product lines is important, so you are not just relying on one product for profit,” she said.

Shroll plans to have the students use the Green Cover Seed company’s milpa seed mix (which translates to “cultivated field” in the Uto-Aztecan language of the Nahuatl) for another diverse cover crop in 2024.

“The ultimate goal is food production, along with building the soil,” Shroll said, explaining her choice.

The milpa seed mix has a variety of 17 edible species in it like turnips, squashes, corn and beans. Shroll said that produce could then go to the Horton Nutrition Center, a self-serve pantry that provides to-go foods, healthy snacks, drinks and nonperishable food items for students, staff and the community.

“Foods that store well, like potatoes and winter squash, would be great for that program,” said Shroll.

In the future, the farm will branch into grain. Shroll’s department works closely with SCCC’s supervisor of culinary and hospitality, Martin Kester.

“He asked if we could grow grain here,” she recalled. “Initially I said no because we would need specialized equipment.”

Then Shroll approached Dr. Conde, from the college’s biology department, who said it was possible. Conde had grown up in Portugal growing grain with her family on a small patch of land and harvesting it by hand.

“I went back to Martin and said, yes, it’s possible, but we’ll need the culinary students to help us out when the time comes because it will be a lot of work,” Shroll said. “You can produce a lot of bread on 1 acre or even half an acre.”

The goal for 2025 is to plant a market garden, which would supply food to the culinary institute and be sold at the student’s farm stand.

“A market garden is a recipe for how to garden, with particular bed and path widths and specific tools, to give the students a real-life context to the concepts that I’m teaching,” said Shroll.

Planting a market garden will also give students an idea of how much they can produce in the space.

“There is a shift happening in the permaculture community where people are farming on small and start-up farms,” she said. “They are asking ‘How much can I grow on 1 acre, on half an acre?’ This is only a third of an acre, so we’ll see how much we can get from it.”

The greenhouse that sits between the cover crop and the future market garden at the farm. Photo by C. Tamulonis, 11/2023.

Shroll looks forward to having students from every program at the farm.

“I’d love to see more volunteer days and students from other disciplines here,” she said. “We all have a connection to the land. It doesn’t matter to me if you are in my program, come on down.”

She plans to have the biology club and students from the environmental science program at the farm in 2024.

“We’ve even had the early education students down to learn about school gardens. You can be any major and still want to grow food and play in the soil.”

This spring, SCCC is offering sustainable garden design on Monday evenings with Professor John Bierne, an organic farming course with David Zelov, and core degree classes including plant propagation and greenhouse management as well as introduction to agriculture. Registration starts November 13. 

You can still spend a few Fridays this fall at SCCC’s Student Farm (weather permitting).

Remaining event dates: November 10, November 17

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Permaculture farm tours, each Friday: 11 a.m. to noon and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Contact Erin Shroll with any questions or meet her at the Student Farm for fall Fridays at eshroll@sussex.edu or 973-300-2340.

Cybele Tamulonis
Cybele Tamulonis, Contributing Writer

Cybele is a writer and editor with more than 16 years in the publishing industry. An avid reader, you can usually find her with the latest new book release from the local library. She currently resides on a farm in Hardwick with her husband and four children. In her spare time, she writes historical fiction specific to New Jersey.