Back to the farm

Pilot plot

Pilot plot:  Eric Engstrom discusses plans growing food crops in the pilot year of the sustainable agriculture internship at the Williamsburg Winery. Four William & Mary students will be working at the winery cultivating produce. The food raised by the students will be on the tables of dining establishments at the Williamsburg Winery and other eateries in the area.

Williamsburg Winery puts four students to work raising produce—sustainably

Diners in Williamsburg-area eateries late this summer may be tasting the results of a William & Mary sustainable agriculture internship.

Four William & Mary students are raising produce at the Williamsburg Winery as what Eric Engstrom calls the "pilot year" in the new program. Engstrom, assistant professor of biology at the College, is coordinating the initiative.

With the plot’s deer-resistant fence as a backdrop—few fences are deer-proof, she says—Williamsburg Winery’s Master Gardener Evi Oakley discusses her philosophies of the field.The sustainability interns are working with the winery's master gardener Evi Oakley on a three-acre plot to raise a variety of items. Much-but not all-of the produce will be served at the dining facilities of the Williamsburg Winery, which is sponsoring the internship.

"The produce will go to various places," Engstrom said. "There are two restaurants on site at the winery, the Gabriel Archer Tavern and the Café Provençal. The interns also will sell to Real Food, the student-run food co-op at the College. We also are setting up a relationship with Aramark, the college dining service."

The four students involved are Will Sinnott '11, Simone Giovaneti '12, Mary Judge '11 and Connor Horne '10. The internship started working in the field on June 1. In mid-May the interns made a trip to the Williamsburg Winery to fill out paperwork and meet with winery personnel including Oakley and winery founder Patrick Duffler.

"We believe you should enjoy life-we put it on every cork. We also believe in work. In the summer we like to start work at six in the morning," Duffler told them. "It's much cooler."

Engstrom is careful to distinguish between the concepts of "organic" and "sustainable" when talking about the goals of the program. As it's the first year of the internship, there's no record of soil use that's necessary for earning the designation of ‘organic.'

"‘Organic' is something for which you get certified by the USDA," he explained. "When I buy organic at the supermarket, all I assume that it means is that the food is probably free of pesticides and that not a lot of synthetic fertilizers were used in producing it."

He continued that an ‘organic' designation doesn't mean that there aren't water-use or other energy-use issues involved in the production of the food. While the program may, in years ahead, be able to obtain organic certification, the winery internship focuses on sustainability. In the context of raising food, Engstrom said, "sustainability" focuses on maintaining the long-term health of the soil.

"The idea is simply this: Are we using practices, which if we continue to use them into the foreseeable future, will allow us to keep farming as we're farming and maintain our yields into the foreseeable future? That's the name of the game," he said.

Sustainable farming practices include use of cover crops, crop rotation and keeping an eye on soil loss. "Not a lot of supplemental fertilizers," he added. "It doesn't mean none, but basically we're going to be relying on manure and compost. Not a lot of pesticide; pesticide can wear down your soil eventually."

Engstrom said that sustainable farming begins with the soil, but involves crop selection and even the way the produce is marketed.

"It's not like the College can put in an order and say, ‘We need this many tomatoes or this many artichokes.' Because a sustainable farmer would say ‘Well, I may or may not be able to get that to you, depending on what I grew the previous year and what my soil can take,'" he explained. "Rather, the sustainable farmer will say to himself, ‘We're going to have a lot of sweet potatoes and asparagus at such and such a time. Now, who can use them?'"