Sterling is located in an epicenter of agricultural operations. We’re lucky to have myriad examples of agricultural practices around us providing a broad and deep understanding of agriculture and, more importantly, sustainable agriculture. The Sterling College Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Program is lucky to be able to combine the best of learning from professional farmers in our area, and providing a safe place to experiment, experience, and put their learning into action–namely, Sterling’s own Farm.

The Sterling Farm is at the core of our curriculum in our two majors, Sustainable Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems. The work program at Sterling, the Summer Agriculture Program, and many of our classes throughout the year use the gardens as a working laboratory to try out different things–how to propagate perennial fruits, what happens when we add biochar to our soils, how to incorporate habitat for beneficials, and so much more. This, along with producing food for the Sterling Kitchen and increasing campus sustainability, forms the core mission of our farm.

In our three acre production fields, students can plant seeds, watch them grow, participate in transplanting, weeding, harvesting, washing, cooking, and finally eating, the vegetables we cultivate. They are a part of many of the decisions about how and why we grow certain crops, can explore the relative sustainabilty of certain diet choices, and see the work that goes into producing a crop. And our food–20% of it is grown right here on campus, using hand and draft animal power–helping to make us #1 in the country in the Real Food Challenge.

In our 3rd installment looking at our High Mowing Seed Trials, we’ll explore some of the challenges of managing a trial as part of a Summer program and take a trip to Wolcott to see, hands on, how High Mowing runs their trials. The collaboration with High Mowing Seeds provides our students with an very valuable learning opportunity in selecting varieties that fit the conditions needed for success be it disease resistance, flavor, ability to store etc. At Sterling Farm we have slightly different needs from our varieties than you might see at a typical vegetable farm. Let’s explore what the traits are that students might select for when evaluating the varieties tested from High Mowing Seed.

seed trials

1. The school calendar dictates – and limits – our resources.

As a college farm, our strongest focus is naturally education, but it also means we follow a calendar that is not well matched to our northern growing season. In fact, a calendar that was specifically designed to allow students a break from academics during the most intensive part of the farm work year.

In May, the month that sees more change in conditions than any other (think: several inches of snow and 90 degrees in the same month; no leaves to full Green Mountain foliage; and almost half of the grass growth for our short grazing season!), our students celebrate the beginning of summer vacation, graduation, and at least a month away from campus–just as the time rolls around for soil prep, compost spreading, peak Spring greens harvest, hoop house planting, seeding of early crops, mulching, grafting, and more.

In June, when we finally reach frost free conditions–time for sowing warm weather crops, early weeding, and some of the first harvests from the field–a batch of new students arrives for the Summer Ag Program. These students are first years’ primarily, and many have never worked on a farm before.

Eight weeks later, these students take a well deserved break before the start of their Fall Semester–just in time for peak harvest season. When they leave, they also take their appetites with them. August produce on our farm must either hold till the return of our students or be preserved for our long, cold winter. Come September, our student population again changes, from 0 to 150 in the space of two weeks. We hire a new crew, retrain, and start a new school year with the harvest of all our summer bounty, plus cabbage, carrots, beets, potatoes, turnips, onions, leeks, and other storage crops.

The winter break is a welcome change, falling as it does during the months of our year when daylight hours drop below 10, and even our hoop house crops, snuggled under their blanket of Remay, plastic, and snow, refuse to grow. Phew! The perfect time to plan for a new season… All this is to say, that we measure success a little differently here–if students are engaged, involved, and learning about our food production system, then we are meeting our primary goal as a college!

2. We grow our food to feed our own community, not for profit, and, as a result, our production goals are a little different.

Our market is basic food that tastes great, uses available ingredients, and keeps our students content. We don’t specialize (like a restaurant or a market grower might), and we need crops that will be easy to process in the kitchen. Flavor, storage ability, and processing qualities are important evaluation criteria for our trial crops. We don’t care so much what a cabbage looks like, so long as it makes great kraut!

We produce for one account, so planning is super important. We can’t pass off a glut of lettuce or cucumbers on a secondary account–instead, we make lettuce soup (yes, really!!) or pickles, or call the food bank. Sometimes it makes sense to just compost some of the excess in our on-farm composting system, making more fertility for next season. We also plan specifically not to compete in the open market with other growers who make their living from farming.

We have the most eaters on campus in the fall and winter–almost twice as many as in the summer. Storage crops are the “bread and butter” of our operation–we can eat 120 lbs of onions in a week during the fall and spring semesters. That’s why the seeds that we are trialing with support from High Mowing are all storage crops–beets, carrots, and cabbage.

3. The Sterling Farm is a working laboratory for students.

One of the ways that our education is different from many colleges, is that students not only see a farm–they work on it. On our working farm, there is room for experimentation, demonstration, and most importantly trial and error. Students are able to see the results of their labor (or lack thereof!) in real time. If they didn’t hoe the beets on time, there will be hand-weeding. If they forgot to open the hoop house on a hot day, there may be seedlings lost. If the horses get frisky with a new teamster, there could be unintended disking of 125 row feet of cabbage. And beet and carrot seedlings are really hard to see when you’re new to hoeing! All of these and more “mistakes” have happened on our farm, but we see it as the natural result of involving, encouraging, and depending upon, students to be a part of the farm, not just observers.

The Sterling Garden utilizes a low input cultivation system, which serves our core mission of increasing sustainability through decreased use of petrochemicals. All of our cultivation and most tillage is completed by hand or horse power. In support of our draft horse minor, students learn to drive horses and use cultivation equipment in the gardens. The Organic Crop Production class teaches the ecological underpinnings of weed management, but also how and when to cultivate. Students use the farm to explore questions, complete research, or just try things out–like growing wheat to make bread, investigating different rations for broiler chickens, finding out about the mycorhizal associations of different crop plants, or milking goats for the first time.

High Mowing Organic Seeds has plenty of complexity as a business but not included in those complex logistics are scholastic calendars, ever-shifting untrained student labor and draft horses. Our operations differ in many other ways but that didn’t stop us from heading to Wolcott with our Organic Crop Production class to pick Tom Stearns’ brain about how to manage a seed trial professionally.

seed trials We caught up with Tom at their Marsh Road Trial Fields and wasted no time getting into the nuts and bolts of how they manage their trials, what traits they look for and beyond.

High Mowing has around 2,000 varieties of seeds being trialed at any given time. During the course of a trial, a seed can be planted 5-7 different times in varying conditions. The average timeline it takes for a new seed to go from trials to the catalog is about 5 years! This ensures that farmers and backyard gardeners alike can trust that the seeds they buy from High Mowing will do what is required.

Let’s reflect back to some of Sterling’s requirements so we know what questions to ask:

  • seed trialsWe’d like the bulk of our production to happen in late summer, through fall, and starting as early as possible in the Spring, when we have 150 mouths to feed.
  • The Vermont growing season prefers to produce most crops in July and August.
  • The Long Blocks are just that–long!–running from September till early May. We need our products to store really well. Part of this is about facilities, part is about growing good crops, part is about harvest and post-harvest handling, and part–the part we are looking at in our seed trials–is about the varieties we grow. Do they mature well in the fall? Do they gain or lose flavor in storage? Will they resist storage diseases
  • As the Summer Ag programs wraps up, we’ll have less farm hands around to weed. Ideally, we’d like the leaf canopy to close, and the plants to be well established, so that they can stand a little weed pressure as they near maturity.
  • We manage all our fields organically, without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or other pesticides, so it’s important to us that the varieties we grow are designed to thrive in organic systems–thank goodness High Mowing is our neighbor!
  • Most of all, it’s important that crops taste great without too much fuss in the kitchen–whether we’re cooking lunch for 150, catering a board meeting, or making pickles to jazz up our winter fare–our crops need to be crowd pleasers.

The sun is shining, the ground is moist and we are now letting Mother Nature do her business. In a couple weeks time, Tom will head Sterling’s way to have a look at our trials and let us know how we’re doing…

Click here to see more images of our visit to the High Mowing Trial Garden

Filed Under: Blog Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems