School News

Keeping Things Growing on the SAS Farm

SAS WELCOMES INTERIM FARM MANAGER MARGARET WILSON ’16 

When the COVID pandemic shut down campus, St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School found itself with a dilemma, the school’s farm educator and his family were in New Hampshire and would not be returning to campus for the busiest part of the growing season. But, as the saying goes, every crisis is an opportunity. While the school’s farm educator was stuck up north, one of the school’s young alumnae and former farm helpers found herself back in Sewanee.

Margaret Wilson, who graduated from SAS in 2016, should have been enjoying the final semester of her senior year at Warren Wilson College. Instead, with Warren Wilson shuttered because of the pandemic, Margaret was back at home. A lifelong gardener and a four-year member of the Warren Wilson landscaping crew, Margaret reached out to her alma mater to see if she could be of use. Her interest in gardening, her experience working a lavender farm and vineyard in France, and her knowledge of landscaping equipment and tools use and maintenance, native plant identification and propagation, and landscape design and creation made her perfectly suited to step in and help out as the interim farmer.

With students and teachers completing the semester via virtual learning, the school’s afternoon farm program was suspended, but there was still work to be done on the farm. In a normal year, spring (and fall) afternoons would find students learning basic gardening practices such as preparing the soil, planting, transplanting, pruning, weeding, and the proper use of tools. Without the labor of students who would normally be learning about agriculture, gardening, and sustainable living through hands-on activity, there was even more to be done.

But, the focus of the SAS Farm Program is understanding sustainability, and sustainability requires the resiliency to deal with challenges. In a normal year, students gain the skills to create a food system without the use of chemical pesticides and find more environmentally sound ways to deal with challenges such as too much rain or too little, poor soil or abundant pests and weeds. This year, the challenge included a COVID-induced labor shortage. Margaret’s daily work includes planting, weeding, and maintaining produce on the farm and in the greenhouse. She has recently started reaching out to build a corps of volunteer helpers.

Margaret is pleased with how the SAS Farm operations have improved since her graduation, “It's been amazing to see the farm transformed by the hard work of (former SAS Farm Educator) Jake Miller. He has really made the farm a beautiful and functional place to be.” Through calls and text messages, Jake brought Margaret up to speed on work underway and the plans for the spring. “My job now is to maintain the best I can, as well as carry out some of the plans and ideas he had before he left.”

Those plans include rigging automated irrigation systems throughout the farm which will one day be connected to a rainwater collection tank. Margaret has relied on Jake’s guidance via FaceTime as well as YouTube videos to get the job done.

“When I finally got to meet Jake in real life, he showed me the flame weed burner, which is probably the coolest tool I've ever used,” Margaret enthused. “I'm no stranger to controlled burns since I got to be part of them many times during my time at Warren Wilson, but this torch can do more weed control in 30 minutes than I could do in 5 hours.”

Margaret is currently harvesting kale, okra, dill, herbs of all kinds, green beans, salad greens, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, watermelon, pumpkin, and berries which is available for sale through the community’s digital market, the South Cumberland Farmer's Market, under the seller "Margaret's Goods."

“Working at the farm has not only given me the opportunity to learn more about something I'm passionate about. It has also helped me create connections during this pandemic,” said Margaret. “Not only have I become   part of the wider farming community through the South Cumberland Farmer’s Market, but I also feel reconnected to the SAS community.”