Can you dig it? After three successful years in Girard, the Mercyhurst Farm is on the move to the North East campus.
At the farm’s new location, the hospitality management and culinary students at Mercyhurst North East will be close by to get hands-on experience picking and working with fresh produce.
“Sustainable agriculture is something that’s becoming more important in the culinary industry and in the world,” said Ken Zirkle, Ph.D., chief operating officer and associate provost at Mercyhurst North East. “With the farm’s move to North East, we can expand those opportunities for our students.”
Farm manager Tim Boucher, along with the help of Mercyhurst students, has already planted four acres of produce in the nearly 12-acre plot located behind the North East campus softball field.
“Whatever it takes for you to plant your backyard garden, multiply it by about 100,” Boucher said.
The team has been busy planning a cornucopia of veggies, including tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), cucumbers, zucchini, squash (butternut and yellow), pumpkins, onions, herbs, green beans, watermelon, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, corn and hops. There’s even a sunflower patch.
The harvest is delivered to many locations, including the Erie and North East cafeterias; the kitchens of the hospitality management and culinary programs; the Gibson Park farmers market; subscribers to the CSA (community-supported agriculture) share; and a produce stand at the Erie campus for students and employees. Additionally, the farm provides thousands of pounds for the Second Harvest Food Bank each year. Nearly eight tons of produce was delivered to Second Harvest last year, thanks in part to the efforts of first-year Mercyhurst students who helped pick during their Freshman Day of Service.
“It’s part of our Mercy Mission to give back,” Boucher said.
The Mercyhurst Farm, though not USDA certified organic, utilizes sustainable growing practices whenever possible. The staff does a lot of weeding by hand. Plus, they use organic pesticides and only spot-sprays the crops when pesticide use is absolutely necessary. By spot-spraying, Boucher explained, that allows “good” insects – predatory bugs that eat the pesky ones – to stick around and take care of things the natural way.
Plus, the farm staff doesn’t shy away from using the most natural pest control method of all: walking the fields to pick off the bugs themselves, one by squishy one.
“Organic is more of a lifestyle than a label,” Boucher said. “It’s time-consuming.
It requires a lot more hands-on work. We try to work with nature and bring things in.”
Hungry for the summer crop? Boucher expects green beans and tomatoes to be ready in late July. Thanks to weather protection efforts like frost blankets, the staff was able to get tomato and pepper plans planted earlier, so they will be ready sooner.
Though it’s a larger operation than the typical family veggie patch, the Mercyhurst Farm is an excellent case study in growing food at home, Boucher said. Having a large variety of produce growing in one area is healthy for the soil and the plants – and it does good for the soul of the one growing them, too.
“It’s a lot of trial and error. You can’t expect everything to work perfectly,” Boucher said. “Some stuff will be damaged by insects, and you have to be prepared for that sense of loss and try something new the next time. But it’s great to watch things grow.”
For more information about the Mercyhurst farm, contact Tim Boucher, farm manager, at email@example.com.