When you visit a farm, you’ll likely see tomatoes, corn, goats frolicking on bales of hay, and pastureland with horses, cows, and sheep peacefully grazing. But you probably don’t expect bamboo, industrial hemp, a hydroponic garden, and a vertical wall of watermelon plants.
The University Farm at N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University has all of that and more. Part research complex, part working farm, and part experiential-learning center, it’s the farm that teaches all the others how to grow and profit.
Students know it as the university’s largest classroom. Each year, more than 1,500 students of various majors in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences assist with research, attend classes, or use the labs in the new $5 million, 17,000-square-foot farm pavilion.
Researchers know it as the university’s largest laboratory. As many as 15 experiments may be underway at any moment in the farm’s fertile soil, testing the best conditions for growing potential cash crops such as ginger or industrial hemp; or in the animal houses, testing things like the effects of confinement on the lung health of pigs.
Cooperative Extension employees use the farm to test and demonstrate, holding workshops about new crops and techniques for farmers and ranchers statewide.
“Research is important,” says Leon Moses, the farm’s superintendent, “but it doesn’t change anything until it’s put in front of somebody and helps them.”
Small Farms Field Days and Small Farms Week, both held in the spring, draw farmers from across the state to workshops and demonstrations.
“We provide the techniques and advice to help them — especially small, limited-resource, and minority farmers,” Moses says.
The farm also holds events for the community, like the Tomato Taste-ival in July, giving backyard gardeners, foodies, and curious spectators the chance to tour the farm, taste its produce, and attend workshops from university horticulture specialists.
During the school year, generations increasingly removed from hands-on agriculture tour the farm with their schools and learn the realities of where their food comes from.
Guilford County’s most versatile farm is also significant to the university’s landscape — literally and figuratively.
“We’re the backbone of the entire college,” Moses says. “We teach, research, demonstrate, and produce, and we complement what’s taught on campus by providing the means to practice and test it.
“We put the ‘A’ in A&T.”
As a “land-grant” university, N.C. A&T — like N.C. State University in Raleigh — was formed as a result of the Morrill Acts, a set of 1800s-era U.S. statutes allowing for the sale of federal land to establish institutions of higher learning. Their mission, in contrast to the liberal-arts tradition prevalent at the time, was to teach agriculture, science, military science, and engineering in response to the changes to industry and social class structure, brought about by the Industrial Revolution and, later, the Civil War.
An integral part of the university’s mission since its founding in 1891, the farm taught techniques and provided food for the campus cafeteria in its early years. Today, the farm is home to dairy and beef cattle, poultry, swine, horses, sheep, and meat goats, in addition to a variety of crops and research plots, maintained by Moses and 15 staff and specialists.
Plans are in the works for a community garden at the farm pavilion, too, with plots for rent to community members who apply.
Whether through teaching, research, or outreach, the 492-acre farm is here for the community both here and statewide.
“Agriculture is an $84 billion industry in our state, the state’s largest industry,” Moses says. “We’re proud of what we do to support and advance it.”