Work Steady At Campus Farm Over Winter

Volunteers work through cold temperatures to prepare crops for spring

Noelle Wyman plucks radishes from the ground during a recent work day at the Duke Campus Farm. All Duke community members can volunteer at the one-acre farm. Photo by Bryan Roth.

Noelle Wyman crouched by a patch of radishes, digging up one at a time and brushing dirt from the maroon vegetables. Despite moving up-and-down the row of crops, she wasn't breaking a sweat under the sunny skies.

The air was cold at 35 degrees - just another winter workday at the Duke Campus Farm for Wyman and a dozen other volunteers on the one-acre plot of Duke Forest land on Friends School Road.

"Over the summer, we didn't have a lot of volunteers coming because we're outside and it's about 100 degrees," said Wyman, a graduate student at the Nicholas School of the Environment and the volunteer and outreach coordinator for the farm. "Now it's the end of the semester so people are busy. At least when it's colder, it's still sunny and nice and not snowing."

Since its start in November 2010, the farm has received about 700 hours of work from volunteers.  In its first year, the farm grew about 6,500 pounds of produce, which was used in Duke dining halls and by other local buyers.  The farm, which features student, faculty and staff volunteers, is a full-scale educational farming facility that grows and sells produce to Bon Appetit, Duke's food vendor.

"Our relationship with the Duke Campus Farm has been nothing but a huge success," said Sarah McGowan, marketing manager for Bon Appetit. "Our chefs have been more than pleased with the quality of the produce that has been delivered, including a large quantity of beets, which were not available from any other local growers."

During the winter months, volunteers are working to harvest beets, cabbage, rutabagas and kohlrabi, a kind of cabbage with an edible, turnip-like stem. Over the winter break, volunteers are still at the farm each Sunday harvesting cold-weather crops and planting seeds and caring for flowers for the spring growing season.

Emily Sloss, manager of the Duke Campus Farm, said one benefit of the colder weather is it allows for a longer harvest season. Hearty vegetables like radishes can be left in the ground longer than tomatoes, which need to be plucked before they reach the height of ripeness. Cold season produce also requires less water.

Volunteers have been working on other projects, too. They recently built a "hoop house," a tunnel set over plant beds that acts as a greenhouse. In addition to protecting crops against the winter elements, the plastic sheeting that covers the tunnel allows for warmer temperatures inside. That means when the thermometer drops to the teens, the hoop house will maintain temperatures as high as the 80s on sunny days.

"It's a big help because we can get the warm season crops started early," Sloss said. "Because the highest demand for our crops will be in the spring, the hoop house allows us to harvest for April instead of June."