April 3, 2019

Little Farm on the Campus

Students at Southern Adventist University know how their garden grows.

Wilona Karimabadi

You learn to really depend on God a lot when it comes to growing produce,” says Seth Shaffer, a Southern Adventist University alum and manager of the school’s Thatcher Farm.

The farm, spread out over five acres on the Collegedale, Tennessee, campus, with three of them currently producing, not only supplies fruits and vegetables to the local community but serves as a place of employment for Southern’s coeds, an outdoor classroom for students studying sustainable agriculture, and a place in which God’s handiwork in the natural world is fully on display. Schaffer gets to immerse himself in all of that.

Collegedale’s climate in the southern part of the United States isn’t regularly exposed to polar vortexes such as those that crippled much of the country last winter. But it still experiences winter. During those times, when nighttime temperatures dip into the 30s and sometimes 20s, Seth isn’t too worried for the winter crops the farm grows. For those of us who don’t count ourselves gardening aficionados, it may come as a surprise to learn that hearty vegetables such as kale and collard greens are designed to pick themselves back up after a little cold-weather beating.

Unlike other vegetables that are grown in high tunnels (much like greenhouses) during the colder months (in the South, this starts sometime after Thanksgiving), Shaffer doesn’t get too worried about these resilient greens. “I didn’t bother covering any of those crops,” he says. “Yes, I knew they were going to take a little bit of a beating, but they’re built for cold weather. So they’re going to look super-pitiful in the morning after it’s been so cold, but they’ll bounce back by midafternoon, and it’ll be like nothing happened.”

Seth’s stint at growing many different types of crops—he’s been manager of the farm since 2015—has certainly taught him a few things about the plant world and the unique way each creation has been designed. “That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years of growing different crops,” Seth says. “I may want to step in and think I need to try to help this plant revive. But no, not really. You just need to sit back a minute. Just let it work itself out.”

A Farm For the History Department

In the early days of many Adventist academies and colleges, farms were an integral part of campus life. They provided food for students and the local community and created employment for kids to work off their tuition bills. Those days are, for the most part, gone. So when Southern developed Thatcher Farm, it wasn’t really to answer any of those needs.

In 2012 Mindy Wiygul, former faculty member of Southern’s History Department, started a new major/minor program called Global Policy and Service Studies. One of the classes in this new program was sustainable agriculture. From a political science perspective, “the thought process behind this was that you can learn all the theory about how you are going to get relief or how you will build up a country, city, or town. But food is usually an issue in all of these places,” says Seth.

In developing countries much of the food consumed is a product of a family’s subsistence farming, or purchased in the village or town market from neighbors’ small farms So while the class exposes students to the theoretical side of modern agriculture and helps them gain a better understanding of food systems, Seth says, “unless you’re actually going out into the field and putting in the work, it doesn’t really click for you.”

As a result of the unique needs of the program, the History Department was given a few acres to develop into a farm, and Thatcher Farm came into being.

Seth’s family developed their own 24-acre farm while he was attending college at Southern, so agriculture wasn’t a new concept to him. He was also a student in the History Department and was able to fulfill certain graduation requirements through the newly created agriculture course. Given this background, Seth was more than happy to sign up. “I went through the class and I’m thinking, Oh man, this is great! I get to go outside and farm as part of school. How cool is that?

With that first group of students, Seth was part of the “literally groundbreaking work,” as he says, of getting the farm up and running. “Starting to put that first produce into the ground, and harvesting and making the beds in the first high tunnel that was there. . . . It was really exciting to see this farm start to grow from the ground up, literally.”

When the Wiyguls left Southern for work in the Middle East North Africa Union Mission, they asked Seth to take over as manager of the farm. He jumped at the opportunity. His day job as full-time periodicals manager of the university’s McKee Library still allows him to run the farm—managing operations of planting, harvesting, and selling of produce—as a volunteer, 100 percent. And as if that is not enough, he is an adjunct professor for the History Department teaching the sustainable agriculture course.

Reaping the Harvest

When school starts in late August, students get exposure to an abundance of late-summer crops—eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and winter and summer squash. But Seth and the working crew—made up of students—are constantly looking ahead to the next season. Thatcher Farm is a four-season farm, which means that as each batch of seasonal crops comes to the end of its run, the earth is prepared to grow something new. “We’re looking ahead,” says Seth. “As fall semester progresses, we’re transitioning over to such fall crops as kale, collards, lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula; and we are also getting a field ready for our strawberry crop.”

Preparing the fields involves mowing anything that has become overgrown and making new beds for a new slew of vegetables. They use something called a bed maker, “and we just go down the tilled field making our rows. The bed makers are supercool because they gather dirt to make a raised bed or slightly raised platform,” says Seth. The beds get covered with biodegradable plastic, and a drip tube is used to water the field. This tube is hooked up to a main water line and all the rows get watered, instead of it having to be done by hand.

The Collegedale and Chattanooga area has a lot of clay soil, which is really great for holding moisture, but not so much for supplying crops with nutrients. So the soil must be prepared. Seth explains the process: “The season before any crop goes in, we rotate crops by taking a field out of production. We put a cover crop on that field, depending on the season. If it is for the fall-winter season, for example, we spread rye onto that field and let it grow.”

Among reasons for this: it holds the soil in place and pumps nutrients into the field. “It takes nitrogen and carbon, and all these different types of nutrients, and holds them there making [the soil] usable for the next crop,” Seth says.

Where do all of these wonderful crops go? Are Southern students feasting on them in the cafeteria? Actually, no. Seth says the farm’s yield is still too small for the cafeteria to use. The goal is to acquire more high tunnels to bulk up fall and winter production in order to be able to share its bounty with campus food services. While that is currently a loss for the dining hall, it is most certainly a gain for the Collegedale and Chattanooga communities.

“All of our produce is for sale, and we have multiple ways of distributing it,” says Seth. “We have several restaurants in downtown Chattanooga that we supply on a fairly regular basis, and we have a contract with the Morning Point Assisted Living Facilities in Collegedale and Chattanooga.” The farm also sells its fresh produce at two to three farmers’ markets in the area. Seth has an e-mail service as well. Every Sunday he send
s out a note, letting customers know what is available. They place orders—often for pickup from his office at the library. “My office is like the pickup point for all the produce. The library staff are used to seeing me dragging in these huge coolers.”

If you keep up with the organic food and/or farm-to-table movements, currently very popular, you may have heard of services from local farms where boxes of in-season, fresh vegetables are curated and sold to clients. You may not know what is available for that week, but you purchase a box of whatever the bounty is and create your meals based on that.

Thatcher Farm isn’t one to be left behind on that front. “It’s called a CSA—community supported agriculture,” says Seth. The larger service runs during the summer for about 16 weeks from May to August, when vegetables and fruits are growing most profusely. A smaller service happens in the fall, usually wrapping up by Thanksgiving. It is a great way for the Southern Adventist University community to get its fill of tasty veggies at the peak of freshness. While Thatcher Farm’s yield isn’t technically certified organic, it’s as natural and pesticide-free as you could ever want.

While the farm yields “cash crops,” 100 percent of the money earned goes directly back into the farm’s account to pay for student labor, equipment, and upgrades. Seth hopes that this year’s strawberry harvest will net enough income for some tractor parts and other needs.

Roots: God

Running a farm and teaching agriculture is certainly enough to fill a day. And its profound spiritual lessons haven’t escaped Seth’s notice. He is daily reminded of God’s care for us as he witnesses something as simple as collard greens snapping back from frost without human intervention. “For me personally, if God can help a plant to grow—something that really doesn’t do anything—why am I stressing out about finances, or schooling, or whatever I’m dealing with?”

“I’m praying about [the farm] when it gets cold; when it gets hot,” he says. “But I’m amazed every year when growing crops and I see them doing really well even when conditions aren’t that good for them. And it’s just wow, you know? I didn’t do anything. Bad weather certainly didn’t help. But that’s God helping these crops to grow.”

To learn more about Thatcher Farm or to help, e-mail Seth Schaffer at [email protected].

Wilona Karimabadi is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.