Punishing heat across the nation is hurting corn and other crops already strained by a long drought but at Mercyhurst College’s west county farm, the case for sustainable agriculture is being made.
There, more than two acres of crops are thriving despite the heat and drought. Three varieties of cabbage, nine varieties of tomatoes, Sorreno, Thai and Jalepeno peppers, snow peas, sugar snap peas – all told, an estimated 50 varieties of plants are being grown – successfully - at the college’s farm in Girard.
So abundant is this summer’s harvest that the college is selling produce at three farmers markets: one on the Mercyhurst Erie campus, another at E. 38th and Pine, and at the Girard Borough Building property, 34 Main St. West. Mercyhurst’s food service contractor, Parkhurst Dining Services, has purchased produce to use in the meals it provides on campus, and the college has already donated more than 600 pounds of produce to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwestern Pennsylvania.
“That’s the nature of sustainable agriculture,” said biology professor Dr. Mike Campbell. “Farmers relying solely on corn seed are suffering because of the weather, but when you have so many different varieties, and you are using methods like companion planting and organically rich composting, you are able to compensate.”
Despite the minimal rainfall, sustainability officer Brittany Prischak and farm manager Tim Boucher said they have not had to provide water for the crops beyond the natural rainwater irrigation system on the farm, relying instead on composted soil to retain moisture and nutrients. Too, companion planting, which benefits certain plants by giving them pest control naturally without the need to use chemicals, has proven highly efficient at the farm.
Projections are the farm will produce close to 14,000 pounds of food this year, 5,000 more than last year’s total of 8,500 pounds.