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Sustaining Life

Wilson College's Fulton Farm brings home earthy values

Wilson College's Fulton Farm brings home earthy values

October 14, 2002

At 10 a.m. on a cool, sunny Wednesday morning - her 30th birthday - Jenn Halpin is fussing in the garden, her dirt-crusted hands battling bindweed, a twisting, crop-choking menace.

The bindweed is winning.

But she is making inroads against the bullheaded plant that has run roughshod across her rectangular patch of dirt, which is within spitting distance of a fenced in area for 15 chickens and an arcing stone's throw from a greenhouse teeming with peppers, eggplant and an unproductive banana tree.

Farther still, 21-year-old Becky Hartman-Berrier and Gaby Masek are picking cherry tomatoes from the vine.

The Wilson College students busily make their way up and down tightly clustered rows of the red and yellow fruit, unbothered by a repetitive motion often requiring hunched backs, Quasimodo style.

Closer to Halpin and her weedy nemesis, farm manager Matt Steiman, 31, lugs a white bucket half full with zucchini for the college dining hall. Taking a break along the outer perimeter of the garden, a leafy strand of bindweed lying limp in her hand, Halpin admits her job could be considerably easier.

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If only she didn't stubbornly insist on eliminating the nuisance without mechanical or chemical means.

"Most people wouldn't transplant or hand pull weeds like I am," she says. "I'm just trying to build up the soil through hand work rather than machine work."

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A half-mile from the heart of Wilson's Chambersburg, Pa., campus, life on Fulton Farm plods on across 100 tranquil acres.

The working farm serves as educational laboratory, community liaison and gateway to an agricultural frontier, all squeezed into long, laborious days that keep Steiman and his partner/girlfriend, Halpin, toiling in the fields.

Growing dozens of crops yearly, the facility is one prong of The Richard Alsina Fulton Center for Sustainable Living. Joined by Wilson's environmental studies program and the Robyn Van En Center, the national clearing house for Community Supported Agriculture, the farm promotes environmental protection and sustainable use of natural resources.

One day the farm, a nearby stream, nature trail and medicinal gardens will be joined by wetlands area and composting facility to create an agricultural jigsaw puzzle where every plant, every fruit, every grain of soil has a role in creating an ecosystem in perfect balance.

Early in the morning - every morning - Steiman is up and walking from farmhouse to field. Aided by Halpin, seasonal interns, volunteers, work study students and Curran Scholars - students who receive tuition assistance in exchange for community work - Steiman tends to crops.

Using organic methods, they supply locals with produce. They also experiment, as with a recent endeavor to convert waste vegetable oil from dining hall donut fryers into diesel fuel for the farm's two tractors.

"What we hope to have is a one-stop complex of educational facilities," says Dr. Inno Onwueme, director of the Fulton Center. "The farm, because it is attempting to farm sustainably, fits into that jigsaw of things geared to enable Wilson students to understand sustainability and the environment."

Originally from suburban Pittsburgh, Steiman has served as the farm's very own Old MacDonald since January 2000. Dressed in dingy tan shorts held on his lean frame with a blue belt and a white long-sleeved T with sleeves pushed up to his elbows, unruly curls tucked under a baseball cap, Steiman's day today is like any other as he embarks on another long day in the fields.

It is not uncommon to see him out tending his crops long after the sun has disappeared, the glow from a full moon or tractor headlights his only guide. During the long, hot summer just past, he was out in the wee hours irrigating fields to preserve the lush vegetables in bloom during mid-September.

"I'm a young farmer, so I'm probably still overdoing it sometimes, but plants are a big responsibility, a big commitment," he says. "Every time I plant a seed, I say I'm going to water you, protect you until it's time to harvest you, and sometimes that means being out late irrigating."

Of their yearly harvest, maybe 25 percent is purchased by the college dining hall. Much of what remains goes toward the Community Supported Agriculture program, with the balance earmarked for local food pantries.

For weekly dues of $10 to $15, about $400 for the year between April and November, 100 CSA subscribers receive an overflowing bounty. A typical Tuesday or Friday pick-up in early autumn includes herbs, eggplant, peppers (red, green and hot), garlic, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce and spinach.

Halpin hopes to increase program participation by 40 percent.

Until she suffered a back injury suffered while working at Wilson's equestrian center, Becky Hartman-Berrier's only agricultural experience came from the organic garden her parents grow at their Connecticut home.

Four semesters later, the senior English and equine therapy student has embraced the farm, a program at Wilson since 1995, as her own.

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