Hanna Mosca of Lawrenceville, a 26-year-old graduate student at Chatham University, hadn’t made the trek to the school's Eden Hall campus in Richland since before the Christmas break to visit the special garden that she and other students had been helping to tend.
It was Jan. 10, just days after record-breaking, below-zero temperatures and she didn’t know what to expect when she checked on the growing beets, broccoli, swiss chard and carrots sheltered by special plastic that formed the walls of movable greenhouses known as high tunnels.
But when the plastic was lifted, it was plain to see.
“They hadn’t just survived. There was vibrancy there," Ms. Mosca said. "The broccoli had sprouted. Everything was growing. I even pulled up a carrot and tasted it, and it was delicious, so sweet.”
She in the second and final year of a graduate program that culminates with a master of arts degree in food systems. She’s been working at the Eden Hall farm, a branch campus of Chatham, for four semesters, visiting multiple times per week, digging in dirt and learning about the sustainable production of food — how to make it profitable for local farmers to be in business and how to give consumers the option of eating local year-round.
This month has produced a turning point for the farm, where students are experimenting with and learning about sustainable agriculture — a key component of which is how to extend the growing season in a best-practices kind of way. Allen Matthews, director of sustainable agriculture in the Falk School of Sustainability and Environment at Chatham, said the ability of the movable high tunnels to withstand extreme cold amounted to a victorious learning experience for everyone.
“I was so happy," he said. " I had never grown anything at minus 12 before. I emailed the dean and said we had survived. It was exciting.”
In his third year in the graduate programs of food systems and sustainability, Mr. Matthews oversees the working farm, which consists of a 1.5-acre student garden, a 4-acre organic vegetable garden, and 25 acres of grain and corn.
“Season extension” — the goal of which is to coax the land to grow and produce 52 weeks of the year — is one of the key topics explored on site. Toward that end, the movable high tunnels were constructed last summer. Essentially, the tunnels comprise a 48-foot-long greenhouse made with layers of plastic film on a structure that is on 100-foot tracks so the “walls” can be moved to either cover or expose the land and the crops.
The high tunnels, which cost $20,000, are considered sustainable because they don’t use electricity for heat. Then, the tunnels can be shifted to a fresh tract so that the plantings have fresh dirt that is free of the build up of salts that accumulate when the land is not subjected to the periodic washing of rainwater.
“Sustainable farming means reduced use of off-farm inputs. It’s farming that’s profitable for the person doing the growing, environmentally and socially responsible — taking care of the land while taking the environment and the community. It's working in partnership with nature to the greatest extent possible — I call it regeneration,” Mr. Matthews said.
Planted in the high tunnels are beets, cabbage, broccoli, kale, carrots, lettuces and other greens. The first lettuces were picked before Thanksgiving break. Some Asian, beet and spinach greens were harvested in December.
Soon, the beets will be ready and, in March, the broccoli, cabbage and carrots will be picked. Then, students will plant in a “fresh” area of uncovered dirt as soon as the soil is soft enough for planting and it will be covered until the end of June. At that point, everyone will be working outside like “regular” farmers, Mr. Matthews said.
The food goes to students who work the farm or to the Chatham cafeteria on the college’s main campus in Shadyside. The project also is benefiting the community. A “hunger banquet” will be held in the spring to raise money for the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank.
Mr. Matthews' wife, Martha, an artist, is working with Chatham’s student affairs department to oversee the student production of bowls that will be filled with homemade vegetable soup made from the farm’s produce. Proceeds from the sale of the soup and bowls will go to the food bank. Last year, 200 pasture-raised chickens from the Eden Hall campus were sold to faculty and students as a fundraiser.
Ms. Mosca said being a part of Chatham’s farm is “exciting no matter what day of the year you go out there. Something is happening, if not in the high tunnels then the greenhouse or the garden. There is so much life there. Being a part of something that is unfolding and that has so much potential — something that tests the limits — is very satisfying,” she said.
Karen Kane: email@example.com or at 724-772-9180.