The farm is an excellent venue for applied research. Faculty, students and community partners have taken advantage of the farm for research purposes. A goal of the farm is to become an information resource for farmers, students and educators on new techniques for raising all-natural food crops, preserving bio diversity and conserving the natural resources on the farm. Independent research projects are designed and carried out by students. Also involved in the projects are faculty from the appropriate departments plus farm staff who work as a team to support the student and help facilitate the research. Students interested in pursuing an independent research project at the farm are encouraged to contact Jenn Halpin or Matt Steiman at the farm, in addition to recruiting the appropriate faculty to support their project.
Examples of ongoing research at the farm include tracking the populations of indigenous bees on the farm by creating habitats that support their longevity, establishing a blue bird trail for wildlife diversity, surveying snake species and populations on the farm, as well as tracking the flow of ground water at key locations on the farm.
Examples of independent study projects for which students earned academic credit include incorporating public art at the farm; investigating the compostability of glycerol, a biodiesel by-product; and documenting the interactions between farm wildlife and farm ecology.
Independent Research Projects
Michael Blair ’12
Evan Kendall ’12
Matt Steiman, Assistant Manager of the Farm
For several years, the Dickinson College Farm has been experimenting with small scale biogas systems. Biogas systems, also known as anaerobic digesters, process organic residues in the absence of oxygen, and produce burnable methane gas as a result of the controlled fermentation by methanogenic bacteria. While in the United States, nearly all working biogas systems are on large-scale livestock farms or sewage treatment plants, in China, India, and other countries, millions of people get their cooking fuel from smaller scale anaerobic digesters. Biogas is a truly renewable and clean burning fuel, derived from organic “waste” products such as cow manure and food scraps through a fairly low tech process.
In 2008 we were awarded a small grant from the Innovation Transfer Network to investigate sustainable options for recycling the glycerine byproduct from biodiesel fuel production at the College’s student run biodiesel shop. One of the options that we explored was using glycerine as a feedstock for anaerobic digestion systems. In 2008 we built a set of bench-top research digesters which were effective, but found that their small size made it difficult to maintain a healthy population of microbes.
In 2011, student Michael Blair worked as an intern with the farm to develop a 25-gallon micro scale digester. This unit, made from a tractor inner tube in a heated, insulated box, first made burnable gas in April 2011 and continued to run throughout the year. The continuous feed, plug flow (sausage) design of the micro digester was easier to manage, since any problems with the microbial community could be adjusted by flushing new material into the system. Gas from this project was used by farm students to cook occasional meals, and liquid effluent from the digester was composted on the farm.
In 2012, Evan Kendall ’12 interned with the farm and enacted a major expansion of the project. Working with farm assistant manager Matt Steiman and Bob Hamburg from Omega Alpha Recycling Services, Evan built a 500 gallon capacity plug flow digester from EPDM roofing membrane donated by Carlisle Syntec, Inc. This pilot scale unit, located in a dedicated greenhouse, produces significant gas… enough to cook several meals each day! The digester is fed animal manures, food scrap compost, biodiesel glycerine, and water, and produces biogas and a nutrient rich liquid effluent. Students Tim O’Reilly, Rich Lauvai, Zach Kaiser, and others from the Idea Fund program built a series of effluent treatment ponds, which are used to grow aquatic plants that both clean the water and generate biomass.
The farm’s biogas project is a work in progress that is constantly evolving and improving! Students who don’t mind getting their hands dirty are encouraged to get involved. Please contact Matt Steiman (email@example.com) or stop by the farm for more information.
Creating a Forest Farm Using Integrated Planting Principles
Cailey Clark ’13
Professor Gene Wingert, Environmental Sciences and Biology
Cailey designed a forest farm in the woodlot on the the Dickinson College Farm. Through the application of permaculture principles, she worked with nature to design a holistic system of native vegetation that provides food as well as ecological benefits to the land. These benefits include soil improvement, habitat for wildlife, and invasive species control. The aim is to mimic canopy gap succession to push out invasive plants and replace them with a multistory edible landscape that will yield crops of high medicinal value along with other fruit, berry, nut, and herbal species. This integrated planting design will create a self-maintaining system where the community can thrive in collaboration between species; in which one plant’s outputs becomes another plant’s inputs, forming a web of interconnected relationships.
This space will be used as a place of both learning and retreat; where students and visitors can wander the labyrinthine, spiraling path in walking meditation to connect and learn from the complexities of the natural world.
Farm-Based Education for Youth
Heather Livingston ’13
Fall 2012-present (ongoing)
In Fall 2012, Heather developed a farm-based education program for youth in collaboration with the Dickinson College Farm and farm Director Jenn Halpin. The program, known as SEED: Sustainable Earth Education, was designed in an effort to educate students about organic agricultural practices in order to better understanding where food comes from and how it is grown. SEED classes are designed to explore creativity through art projects and hands-on activities. During the Spring 2013 semester, Heather once again wrote curriculum, advertised, and taught classes for SEED. These initiatives were to complete her independent study but are also to fulfill her passion to teach environmental education. The program will be continued by Carson Koser for the 2013-2014 academic year.
Computer Science Independent Study
Qi Wang ’13
Fall 2011-Spring 2012
Qi did an independent study on developing a mobile database application for the college farm. The application runs on a Trimble Nomad rugged handheld computer and allows the user to enter information about seeding, planting, and harvesting activities, and to run some basic reports while the user is working in the field. Qi has also developed a Windows application that the user can use on the desktop to easily synchronize data between the database on the desktop and the database on the mobile device. Once the synchronization process is completed, the user can run reports on the collected data for further analysis. For example, the user can analyze the yield trend of a crop by running a report to get the average yields of the crop over consecutive time periods.
Integrated Pest Management
Scott Hoffman ’12
Nicole Davidson ’13
Jamie Bugel ’13
Kaitlin Soriano ’14
Fall 2011-present (ongoing)
Scott is engaged in research testing the efficacy of a proposed method of organic pest control. The Dickinson College Farm already implements several forms of organic pest management, for example grassy strips between crop subfields and a bluebird house project, both of which serve to increase the number of beneficial organisms (which either predate on or parasitize pest insects) on the farm. In order to further increase the amount of beneficial organisms on the farm, we have decided to test a “hub” concept of organic pest control (see diagram). The “hub” consists of a small (9 ft diameter) pond surrounded by rings of native flowering perennials and trees. The pond will serve as a breeding site for the American Toad, a consumer of some agricultural pests. The species included in the rings surrounding the pond were chosen based on their attractiveness to a number of beneficial insects (for example, green lacewings, parasitic wasps and syrphid flies). There will be six hubs scattered throughout the fields (see map). Scott assessed the population of the American toad on the farm to determine if the hub ponds can be used successfully to bolster toad populations. Scott worked with Professors Carol Loeffler and Scott Boback (Biology) to complete this project. Nicole Davidson (’13) has continued the American Toad research at the College Farm under Scott Boback’s supervision.
Effects of Adding Vermicompost (Worm Compost) to Potting Soils
Anna Farb ’12
Fall 2011-Spring 2012
Anna is currently conducting independent research on the effects of vermicompost in potting soils. With a simple mix of equal parts by volume of vermicompost, peat moss, and vermiculite, lettuce and pak choi plants grew relatively well in relation to a commercial organic potting mix. However, she plans to add a small amount of a few organic amendments to the mix in order to increase the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium available to the plants. Furthermore, peat extraction causes habitat degradation and greenhouse gas emissions; therefore, coir, a fibrous byproduct of coconut production and an effective substitute for peat in potting soils, will be assessed in order to define the most efficient, economical, and sustainable potting soil mixes. She also hopes to find out if liquid vermicompost extract will impact plant health and productivity if sprayed onto foliage.”
Effects of Adding Volcanic Ash to Soil
William Seward ’12
Will is working on a collaborative research project with Benjamin Edwards, Dickinson Earth Science Department, exploring the effects caused by the addition of volcanic ash to soil on plant growth rate. The project aimed to simulate these effects in a growth experiment that was conducted one of the College Farm’s greenhouses in the fall of 2011. Rye plants were grown in pots containing either volcanic ash mixed with peat moss, or quartz sand mixed with peat moss. The goal here was to isolate the volcanic ash as a soil structural amendment and nutrient by mixing it with a nutrient-poor substrate, the peat moss, and using an inert material with similar grain size, the sand, as the control. During the forty-five day growth period, the pots were watered with equal amounts of deionized water, in order to prevent any chemical changes due to water chemistry. The growth rates were measured by taking each plant’s height every five days during the growth period, and by taking the combined weight of the plants from each pot at the end of the growth period. The height and weight data revealed that plant growth rates were significantly better in the pots containing volcanic ash than those containing sand. In the spring of 2012, the ash will be characterized using the scanning electron microscope in order to explain what attributes it has as a soil amendment. We plan to test the hypotheses that the ash is vesicular enough to improve soil’s moisture retention, and that the ash releases significant amounts of certain nutrients that could potentially be available to plants, such as phosphorous, iron, and manganese, when it is exposed to water. Ultimately, we will evaluate the ability of volcanic ash to amend soil structure and fertilize plants.
More about Creativity and Academics on the Farm
Science on the Farm: an Overview of Student/Faculty Research Projects Utilizing the Dickinson College Organic Farm(PDF)
John Henson, Charles A. Dana Professor of Biology, Dickinson College:
Farm Art: Creativity and the College Farm (PDF)
Anthony Cervino, Assistant Professor of Art, Dickinson College