Seeds of Potential

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living is growing into a brighter future.

By Cathy Mentzer

A fter arriving at Wilson in 1987 as a young biology professor, Brad Engle was disappointed when the College sold a stand of old-growth forest to a logger. The woods were part of the Lehman Farm, an 18th-century farmstead the College purchased in 1974.

Like his colleague in the biology department, Tom Cheetham, Engle had an interest in a field then known as ecology, which examined the interrelationships between the environment and living things. After Gwendolyn Jensen became president of Wilson College in 1991, “she came to Tom and I and said, ‘I’d really like you to think about possible ways we might use this land and this farm to benefit the College,’” said Engle, now an associate professor of biology and chair of the Physical and Life Sciences Division.

Jensen was interested in how the 100-acre farm could benefit the College financially and academically, Engle said. “She pretty much painted it as a blank slate,” he said.

Marking its 20th anniversary this year, Wilson’s Richard Alsina Fulton Center for Sustainable Living sprouted from both practical and idealistic visions. College officials wanted to make use of the farmstead it had owned for nearly 20 years. Engle, Cheetham and others had a vision of caring for the land, preserving history and natural resources, and pursuing a new movement of environmental sustainability. The visions blended and evolved in 1994 into what was then known as Wilson’s Center for Environmental Education and Sustainable Living. The center—which promotes earth-friendly practices such as sustainable food and energy production, land and watershed stewardship, conservation and preservation—provides oversight of the College’s Fulton Farm and Robyn Van En Center, an information resource for community-supported agriculture with a national CSA database. But while the Fulton Center has achieved many of its initial goals, work continues for the Fulton Center to reach its full potential.

“You’ve got something special going on there … very forward-thinking, very well-supported,” said Steve Moore, a farmer and one of the first directors of the Fulton Center. “It may be the time for a full bloom.”

An idea takes root
After being approached by Jensen about ways to use the Lehman farmstead, Engle and Cheetham brainstormed, engaging other faculty in the process. “The collective idea was it would be nice to use this land as a model of sustainability,” Engle said. “At that time, sustainability was not a mainstream term. There were very few colleges that had a program in sustainability.” They envisioned three main ideas: using the farm for small-scale organic food production for the College; creating a curriculum in environmental studies; and involving the campus community with the land, “but with no specifics,” he said with a laugh.

They developed a white paper, followed by a grant proposal for seed money to create a sustainable living and education center. Jensen and former trustee Carol Schaaf Heppner ’64 took the proposal to the Eden Hall Foundation, which in 1994 provided a $235,000 grant—the full amount requested—to start the center, hire a director and pay operational costs for three years. Later that same year, the Klein Foundation provided a $50,000 grant to build a greenhouse. That September, the College hired its first director, Rima Nickell.

In a 1994 newspaper article, Nickell—who had a background in organic farming, land use planning and natural resource management—said the center would demonstrate how to live sustainably by “establishing an organic farm and eventually constructing an energy-efficient director’s residence and a conference facility with reference materials ….” While the organic farm is well-established, the residence and conference center were never realized and are no longer part of the Fulton Center’s plan.

The College hired Moore, a progressive local farmer who was becoming widely known for his innovations in sustainable agriculture, to consult on the construction of the center’s first solar greenhouse and production techniques, and later hired him to run the College farm. Nickell departed in 1996 and Moore took over the additional responsibility of Fulton Center director, ushering in an era of growth, experimentation and innovation.

A time of growth

Moore moved into Wilson’s farmhouse with his wife and daughters, ran the farm, led workshops and demonstrations, taught classes and became the go-to source for news reporters writing stories about the latest developments in sustainable agriculture and energy. “He was the guru,” said Edward Wells, who was hired in 1997 as Wilson’s first environmental studies professor. “Everyone came to him. He used to run workshops for Amish and Mennonite farmers on draft horse farming. He was one of the smartest people I’ve known in my life.”

Famously dubbed “the Gandhi of Greenhouses” in an article by a nonprofit organic farming research organization called the Rodale Institute, for his mastery of using solar greenhouses and building healthy soil to produce vegetables almost year-round, Moore launched a community-supported agriculture program at Wilson in 1996 to encourage local farmers to adopt the model—a then-novel approach to save small, family farms and connect people to the source of their food. In a CSA, subscribers provide farmers with needed revenue at the beginning of the planting season and then share in the harvest, as well as the risk, of the farm operation.

Moore can still see in his mind’s eye the farm’s CSA subscribers striding across the lawn to the farmhouse porch to pick up their weekly shares of produce. Some members paid full price for a share of the harvest, some worked on the farm to get a discount and some paid more than their share just to support the idea. Others couldn’t afford it, but their church paid so they could have access to healthy food each week.

“When they hit the front porch, everybody was the same,” Moore said. “You still got 10 tomatoes and five peppers. It made food an egalitarian issue and everybody had the same right to the same healthy food, regardless.” He paused. “I really liked that, as you can tell, and I, as a farmer, and we, as Wilson, played a part in bringing that about.”

Moore also founded Wilson’s Robyn Van En Center in 1998 with a $48,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for CSA development in the Northeast. “We had the number one grant in the nation out of 600 applicants,” Moore said. “The CSA movement was just barely getting started in the United States and really, Wilson College was at the forefront of making things happen in the Northeast.”
Originally staffed by an intern, Jayne Shord, and subsequently by volunteers and part-time employees, the Van En Center provides information about CSAs and the CSA movement to farmers, news media and other interested groups around the nation and abroad. The center also manages a national database of CSAs.

Now a consultant and instructor in the environmental studies department at North Carolina’s Elon University, Moore left Wilson in 1999 after, in his words, becoming “burned out.” The College recognized the need to divide the work he performed into two positions—center director and farm manager—and for a year, Wells and Shord served as CSL co-directors. During that time, Wilson student Tonami Jones ’01 organized a community meeting that led to the creation of Chambersburg’s South Gate Farmers Market—now the North Square Farmers Market—of which Wilson is still an anchor member. Shord, working in her capacity at Wilson, helped found the market and the South Central Pennsylvania Farmers Association.

In 1997, with initial funding for the Fulton Center evaporating, Wilson alumna Lucille Tooke ’40 gave $100,000 to endow it, followed in late 1999 by $1 million from Susan Breakefield Fulton ’61 for an endowment to honor her late husband, Richard, a former Trustee, lawyer, farmer and conservationist for whom the center was renamed. Susan Fulton later made gifts to the Fulton Center to rehabilitate the Owens Barn and part of the Tooke Farmhouse. She also provided funding to underwrite energy conferences hosted by the center.

After Moore’s departure, the College hired Matt Steiman in 2000 as farm manager and Inno Onwueme became the next center director. Since Steiman, three others have served as farm manager—Mary Cottone, Eric Benner and Sarah Bay, the current manager, who arrived in 2012. Steiman was promoted to Fulton Center program manager in 2005 and when he left, he was replaced in 2007 by Chris Mayer ’07. After seven years, she is the longest-serving head of the center for sustainable living.

Positive changes on the horizon
Among the Fulton Center’s successes, community members, school children, farmers and renewable energy and sustainable agriculture advocates have visited the center and its organic farm, seven acres of which are used to grow produce. Wilson made a formal commitment to sustainability by incorporating it into its mission statement and signing the American Colleges and Universities Presidents’ Climate Commitment to pursue climate neutrality. In recent years, the College has experimented with biodiesel production, wind power and solar electric arrays. The farm grows organic food for the dining hall and a farm stand, as well as the community-supported agriculture program. The Fulton Center has preserved historic buildings and land. Dam removals and other projects have improved the Conococheague Creek’s water quality. The College has received recognition for its environmental stewardship and preservation efforts, including winning two Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in 2001 and 2003.

However, Wilson has found it difficult to achieve the initial goal of integrating the academic curriculum with the Fulton Center and connecting it the campus community. “We need a bridge between the farm and the curriculum and the culture of the College,” said Wells, now director of the Environmental Studies program. “Some of our students don’t know we have a farm.”

Mayer shares Wells’ frustration. “One of the tenets of sustainability is continual improvement,” she said. “What we’re doing is a process and there’ll always be room for improvement.”

As the Fulton Center begins its 20th year, there is cause for renewed optimism, according to Wells, Mayer and others. The farm’s designation in December as U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic should open doors for research and funding partnerships. In addition, a feasibility study is underway to examine a new academic program involving food—food policy, safety, access or security—that may finally be the link between the Fulton Center and academics the center’s founders envisioned. Bay said she looks forward to strengthening that connection.

To celebrate the Fulton Center’s 20th anniversary, the College has organized several events. Spring Convocation on Feb. 11 kicked off the celebration with a special program about the Fulton Center that Susan Fulton attended. On April 26, volunteers planted native trees and shrubs to expand the riparian buffer along the Conococheague, as part of a joint effort with Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Pennsylvania office. On June 6 during Reunion Weekend, an evening bonfire with music and food will also recognize the center’s birthday.

“Farms are life forces of a community,” Bay said. “If you want to get down to the food aspect, it’s in politics; it’s in economics, sociology. The idea of farming is ingrained in every little aspect of society. It’s all there. It’s all connected. That’s what I believe.”

Like other Fulton Center managers, Mayer brought her own interests to the job while continuing to focus on core sustainability issues such as energy conservation and promoting healthy, local food to the College and community. For the past five years, she has organized a workshop series called “F.R.E.S.H. (Finding Responsible Eating Strategies for Health).” She has planned an annual “Energy and You” conference to educate area residents and business owners about saving on energy costs by using alternative energy technologies.

“I guess my overall goal with that is creating this awareness, giving people information and letting them decide,” Mayer said. “They need the awareness before they can begin to appreciate the environment, food, community, neighbors, clean water, their world—and then they can act on it. It’s all connected.”
With the help of a five-year, $433,612 grant for environmental education from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, the Fulton Center has overseen a number of new sustainability-related facilities on campus, including a charging station for electric vehicles with rooftop solar array at the art annex building, an outdoor classroom and composting toilet at the farm and last summer, a new produce washing station and pole barn at the farm. The pole barn is equipped with a solar array to power an irrigation pump and electric tractor.

But the Fulton Center also is in need of a focused direction, said Mayer, who plans to develop a new strategic plan. “There’s never enough time to do that visioning and planning,” she said. “We could look at things like certificate programs in sustainable agriculture. I’d love to see a lab and a classroom and a teaching kitchen.”

Through the Fulton Center, the College has served as a leader in sustainability issues and can be proud of that, said Wilson President Barbara K. Mistick. “We have to set leadership examples for our community and for our students. It’s a limited planet and we really have to be good stewards for the future.”

Mistick, Mayer and others are encouraged by recent positive developments, such as the USDA designation of Fulton Farm as certified organic. “I think our greatest hope is that we’ll get more opportunities for students to do research projects up there,” Bay said. “Having certified organic land to work on is a wonderful asset. It’s probably going to open doors in ways we’re not even thinking about.”

The farm is also certified naturally grown, a peer designation that will continue. But Mayer worries about staffing to keep up with the certification requirements. “We need more full-time staffing at the farm, especially now with this USDA certification,” she said. “The increased record-keeping alone is going to demand way more of someone’s time.”

The Fulton Center has faced staffing problems at other times as well. Since its inception, interns, AmeriCorps Volunteers and part-time workers have staffed the Van En Center. “We’ve turned down speaking engagements because we have no budget for travel,” Mayer said. “If we had a full-time person, we would be able to take a look at mission and visioning.”

The staff could expand if the feasibility study leads to a new food program, Mayer said. “I think that has the potential to blow the socks off of things,” she said. The results of the feasibility study are expected to be released soon.

“The thing that’s wonderful about doing the food study here is, we sit in south-central Pennsylvania, where the family farm is still a big part of the economy,” Mistick said. “Having academic communities that are positioned to deal with those issues is important.”

Engle called the prospect of research projects for students at the farm exciting and expressed optimism about the potential for an academic program involving food. “I think it has tremendous potential,” he said. “Depending on what comes out of it, it would be a program that directly links the farm and the center into the curriculum. I think all along that’s what we envisioned.”

Farm Living

During the growing season at the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living, farm manager Sarah Bay works in the fields from sunup to sundown, checking plants for pests and disease, pulling equipment with the tractor and supervising interns, work-study students and volunteer workers at the farm. The work leaves her dirty and feeling satisfied. “Boots filled with dirt, wet clothes if I was working on irrigation, permanent dirt etched in the cracks of my fingers for the whole season,” she says of her typical work day. “Maybe some sunburn, probably a killer tan—but hopefully, all with a smile on my face.”

It takes an incredible amount of planning and a finely honed ability to multitask. “I feel like I’m just everywhere up there all the time,” Bay says, laughing.

Bay oversees the growing of fruits and vegetables with natural methods that do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. “I knew it would be a very hard job and it is a very hard job,” says Bay, who marked her second year at Wilson in February after working for five years on an organic vegetable farm in south-central Pennsylvania. “It is very challenging.”

The farm supplies produce for the center’s community-supported agriculture program, which allows members to share in the harvest through paid subscriptions. In addition, the campus dining hall purchases and prepares Fulton Farm produce. Bay and farm interns sell vegetables, herbs and flowers at a campus farm stand and at the North Square Farmers Market in downtown Chambersburg.

After growing up in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Bay graduated in 2006 from Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., with a degree in environmental science. A senior research project on organic farming prompted her to begin considering it as a career. She enjoys physical labor and being outdoors. “I knew that I needed to be outside, whatever I did,” Bay says.

After college, Bay traveled to India to take a course in sustainable agriculture. “[The course] was being developed right around the same time I was doing this organic farming research,” she says. “I hadn’t gone abroad in my college years, so it seemed like a pretty awesome opportunity to go abroad and have that experience, and learn about sustainable farming to see if I wanted to pursue it further.” Sustainable agriculture also struck a chord with her because of her interest in the environment. “The fact that it involves preserving the environment and it involves the whole ecological system—that obviously appealed to me, being an environmental science major,” Bay says.

In mid-summer, Bay begins her day at 6 a.m., meeting with farm interns before they start work. “I have a plan for the day that I figure out the evening before or quickly that morning,” she says. “It’s written down so all interns know.”

Some interns may harvest ripe vegetables early in the day while it’s still cool, others may be tasked with setting up irrigation for the plants.

“I could be hopping on the tractor and getting ground ready,” Bay says. “I am on the tractor a lot.” She uses it to prepare fields and for tasks such as mowing, turning compost, spraying an organic pesticide and transplanting vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers and squash. “That thing gets run hard every day. It’s a workhorse.”

After a one-hour lunch break, Bay and her crew get back to work, weeding, watering or harvesting vegetables and herbs. The interns’ workday ends at 4:30 p.m. “I usually work beyond that at least an hour,” Bay says. By the end of her day she says she is usually dirty, sweaty and usually sporting a new bruise or scrape from attaching implements to the tractor.

As the sole person responsible for coordinating planting and production of the farm crops, Bay also keeps a vigilant eye on plants because she cannot use chemical fertilizers and pesticides to address or prevent pests and other problems.

“As a farmer you just learn to multitask,” Bay says. “If you’re harvesting something, you’ll be looking around at the crops for bugs or disease. You’re just constantly on the watch.”

Bay spends the off-season nurturing the soil to create conditions for a healthy harvest. “Healthy soil is key,” she says. “I take [annual] soil tests so I know how it’s looking, how the nutrients are. Depending on that and what crop I’m going to grow where, I’ll add compost or natural minerals.”

Bay enjoys the physical labor and thought that goes into growing things sustainably, as well as sharing her knowledge and passion for it with others. “It’s a really meaningful job,” she says. “I feel pretty satisfied at the end of the day after a day of farming. Being outside is great, too.”

Bay keeps detailed records of the crops planted each year as well as how popular—or unpopular—certain vegetables are with those who buy from the farm. “I try to predict how much food I’ll need for CSA shares,” she says. “I also try to predict how much we could sell at the farmer’s market and how much I give to the dining hall. It’s an involved process.”

Bay donates any surplus produce to the local Salvation Army.

The farm grossed more than $60,000 on its crops last year, which paid for about half of the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living’s budget, according to Bay.

In spite of her busy day-to-day work schedule, Bay makes time to host events at the farm, including potluck dinners, bonfires and other events. “Farms are the life forces of a community,” she says. “It’s important to have people involved.”