Reaping rewards

Students in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences organic demonstration farm program are not just getting their hands dirty, they are helping the community and furthering research of sustainable farming techniques. 

Created in 2006 to support the college’s Certificate Program in Organic Agriculture, the eight-acre farm, located on part of the Durham Horticulture Farm in Watkinsville, has become an integral part of class for students studying both in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and other colleges and schools. Since the program was launched, 40 students have earned a certificate in organic agriculture as part of their degrees. Currently, there are 60 students seeking the certificate.

In addition to a venue for field trips and agriculture lab courses, the farm offers paid internships to students in the program. This unique opportunity gives them the hands-on training they need if they want to run their own farm one day, said Robert Tate, the organic farm manager and CPOA coordinator. 

“The reason this is so important is because it’s not just a Power Point only classroom setting,” Tate said. “It is experiential learning. When you’re learning to run a farm, the science part of it is useful. But unless you have the experience of actually working on a farm, seeing it first hand, you’re missing something.” 

Depending on the season, Tate and the students produce about 200 to 300 pounds of vegetables a week. Some of that goes home with his cash-strapped college students, but the bulk goes to the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, which distributes the fresh vegetables to families in need in 14 counties in the area. 

The mix of disciplines needed to run an organic farm has broadened its appeal to everyone from entomologists to economists, added Tate.

While learning the basics about natural pests and weed control, low-intensity irrigation and how to take care of the farm’s USDA-certified organic soil, students also are exposed to new sustainable farming techniques being developed by UGA researchers, said Julia Gaskin, Sustainable Agriculture coordinator in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.   

Without having a properly managed organic farm as part of campus, it would be difficult for UGA researchers to make any headway in developing more effective organic farming techniques.

“The certified organic acres are very important for research because organic systems rely on building the soil organic matter and fertility, use of crop rotation and cover crops, as well as providing areas for beneficial insects to help manage pests,” Gaskin said. “To truly begin to understand if a certain variety or crop can be profitably grown, it has to be evaluated within the organic production system.”

The farm features test plots of different cover crops and different plant varieties, which researchers use to determine how effective different practices are for controlling weeds, controlling insects and feeding the soil.  

On July 19, the farm crew hosted its first public tour of the farm, in an effort to show off their bounty and to share what they’ve learned about organic farming methods with local organic and traditional farmers. They plan to hold more tours and outreach events at the farm in the future.