Sustainable farming isn’t just greening – it’s learning


macoskey center

Ashley Beal, a Slippery Rock University environmental science major from West Mifflin, weeds a carrot bed at SRU’s Macoskey Center. Students are raising organically grown vegetables as a sustainable agriculture project.

July 31, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The vegetable beds on the campus of Slippery Rock University are bringing forth their harvest - peppers, squash, onions and lettuce. Soil-savvy students are growing new varieties of produce this summer as they research and implement pollutant-free, sustainable farming.

The eco-friendly food production system has been expanded to include organically grown garlic, four types of peppers, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, radishes, watermelon, corn, pumpkins and cooking apples.

The growing season education takes place on SRU's 83-acre Robert A. Macoskey Center for Sustainable Systems Education and Research demonstration site.

Students said they embrace earth friendly farming as a labor of love. The food production is not about making money; produce and eggs from chickens raised on site are made available for a donation.

"It is a community of living organisms that needs to be taken care of every day," said Emily Merritt, a parks and recreation/environmental education major from Guys Mills. "At the beginning of summer, we focus on garden bed preparation - weeding, tilling and composting. Then came the planting. Now, as our crops mature, we maintain the garden by weeding and watering it."

Students implement all aspects of the garden. They germinate seeds, mix compost into the soil, water plants and harvest crops. Donations from buyers go toward buying seeds for next year's crop. Students incorporate strategies for minimizing ecological impact. They use chemical-free compost, grow crops without pesticides and prevent water runoff by using raised boxes.

"We live in a society where so little people know the intricacies about where and how their food is grown," said Ashley Beal, an SRU environmental science major from West Mifflin. "By providing organically grown produce to the university and our community, we are not only practicing sustainability, but promoting food and health awareness. Whether you are concerned with your own health, your family's health, or the health of the environment, food awareness should be at the top of your list.

"As student workers at the Macoskey Center, we care about creating a supportive, sustainable, and healthy environment," she said. "We strive to make our facility a place where morals and values for a sustainable future are demonstrated consistently."

In keeping with the mission of sustainability, even the garden compost incorporates green practice. The Macoskey Center receives up to 350 pounds of pre-consumer material such as fruit cores and wilted lettuce from the dining halls daily that is added to make compost. It also uses leaves collected by Slippery Rock Borough.

"All of our produce is organically grown, which means we do not use any pesticides herbicides or chemical fertilizers," said Dale Chappell, a graduate student in secondary education science from New Castle. "Instead, we use only organic fertilizers, compost and of course sun, soil and water."

Students spend many hours tilling and maintaining vegetable beds, sometimes toiling in 90-degree heat. They pick apples and take care of live chickens, including eight chicks that they expect will begin producing eggs in six months.

Each crop requires specific maintenance for optimum growth. Students research best practices and consult master gardeners to determine what each plant needs, embracing a smarter form of agriculture.

"Sustainability gardening promotes the ideology that we can reap the long-term benefits of working with nature rather than against it," said Kiley Slowik, a master's in environmental education major from New Castle. "By implementing organic practices, using renewable sources wisely and creating a positive environment where people can work together, we ensure the longevity of the surrounding community and the Macoskey Center. The Macoskey Center is a model for long-term self-sufficiency."

Fran Bires, SRU Macoskey Center director, said students learn firsthand by purchasing seeds, researching when to plant the seeds in the greenhouse and eventually transplanting seedlings into raised beds. Throughout the process, students nurture plants along, providing them with their needs of life.

Bires said for some students, the Macoskey Center gardening offers their first experience with growing their own food and acquiring a sense of ownership for plants.

fran bires


"When you take care of something like a garden and watch things grow, it does something to you," Bires said. "You're connecting with the earth, soil, sunlight and water. For many gardeners, there's nothing more gratifying than harvesting something that you grew yourself. Growing your own vegetable garden will provide you with tasty produce, improve your health, save money and even boost your mental well-being."

Bires urged consumers who don't purchase produce locally to think about changing their habits, especially for those who want to support sustainable initiatives.

"The average food item on your dinner plate travels 1,500 miles. Buying local produce stimulates the local economy and saves a tremendous amount of fossil fuels that comes with farming, packaging and transporting produce," Bires said.

Garlic, lettuce, cooking apples and eggs are currently available. Other vegetables will be made available after harvest, distributed from the Harmony Barn at the Macoskey Center.

SRU, which has been named a leading green university, coordinates sustainability initiatives from the Office of Sustainability. (

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