Homefield advantage in play at Va. Tech
BLACKSBURG, Va. — A recent twilight tour of Virginia Tech’s Homefield Farm showcased the work being done at the newly named section of the university’s Kentland Farms.
Alex Hessler, farm director, explained to the group of mostly produce growers some of the work that is being done on the six-acre farm. It includes research for several colleges at the university and producing food for the university’s dining centers.
Homefield Farm is a partnership between Dining Services and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Hessler told the group. Begun in 2009, it was formerly known as the Food Services Farm.
Following a light meal that featured locally grown foods and watermelon grown on the farm, Hessler led a walking tour of the facility, explaining different production methods, tools used in the farming operations and plans for the future.
Hessler said he teaches a class, the Sustainable Agriculture Practicum in both fall and spring, open to all majors and has no pre-requisites.
“The students become the farm crew,” he said.
The farm also haspartnered with the Civic Agriculture and Food Systems minor by serving as a site for service learning and student capstone projects. Faculty and graduate students in the Department of Entomology use its fields to conduct research on integrated pest management strategies. The farm also invites students from other courses, clubs, and organizations to tour the farm and volunteer.
Like most schools working to get more locally-grown food into is cafeterias, Homefield Farm faces the challenge of supplying the dining halls at off-peak times in the growing season with the university most busy from late summer to early spring.
“Focus on season extension,” Hessler said as his main solution.
This involves moving spring and fall planting dates to reflect the academic year.
The farm uses a high tunnel greenhouse constructed so it can be moved back and forth on two plots He said the structure relies on passive ventilation with open sides.
During the summer, when the dining services staff has less demands on its time, the staff members are able to freeze and dry the tomatoes and other produce to have during the main school year, he added.
Products grown on Homefield Farm have focused on foods that the chefs want. Roma tomatoes are a big crop for the farm, used for sauces, Hessler said. Chefs are also able to order their produce online.
Much of the weed management at the farm involves destroying weed seeds with different methods before planting.
They also use a “finger weeder” implement, purchased two years ago, that has dramatically reduced time spent on hand weeding. Hessler said the farm in transition to USDA Organic certification.
Both plastic and living mulch are used in the vegetable plots.
Hessler said the annual grain, teff, is planted between rows to provide a living mulch. It’s tiny seeds — there are 1.3 million per pound — are quick growing.
For irrigation the farm relies on subsurface drip irrigation. He said it is a little deeper than he likes it but the depth keeps equipment from damaging it.
Among the equipment on display was a lightweight harvest wagon with a conveyor mounted on it that enables workers to harvest faster.
Another was a transplanter equipped to apply water, and poultry litter at planting.
Pointing to some plastic on a produce bed with deer tracks down the middle Hessler said deer are a major problem on the farm.
He said the farm team plans to surround the entire six acres with deer fence.
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