BELLEVILLE, Ill. — With a new program director, new dean and new partnerships, the Southern Illinois University farms at Belleville and Carbondale are looking in new directions.
“Everything we do at SIU, especially with the farm, it has to have two to three purposes. It has to be multifaceted,” said Chris Vick, program director for the University Farms at SIU.
Vick is new on the job, having been program director for 14 months. He has been with SIU since 1995, starting as a student worker on the same farms he now oversees.
The SIU agriculture program itself has seen significant changes in a short span of time. The College of Agriculture merged with the College of Science.
In June, Eric Brevik, of Dickinson State University in North Dakota, was named as the next dean of the College of Life, Agricultural and Physical Sciences at SIU.
Vick emphasized that the mission of the SIU farms hasn’t changed.
“The purpose of the farm is for recruitment, retention and training — that’s our mission,” he said.
But how that mission is carried out and funded is taking on a different look, with sustainability, in various forms, being a priority.
“We all know — and this is all the university farms across the state — that there aren’t the state dollars there were to support these research farms,” Vick said.
To that end, part of the mission of the farms is to open up and do more outreach to the community through events that also raise funds to support the farms.
In June, the SIU equine science program and students hosted two weeklong “Saddle Up!” camps that taught children about horses and also offered riding lessons as part of the experience.
“In the fall, we are probably going to do a ‘dinner in the dirt,’” Vick said.
A new addition to the SIU farms is the sustainable farm, which recently opened and has multiple purposes.
“Why we call this sustainable is we get food waste from the dining halls that goes to our compost center. We have an Illinois EPA-registered compost center on the farms. That food waste goes to the compost center and it’s mixed with the horse manure to make a high-value nutrient content compost. That compost comes back to the sustainable farm where we raise the vegetables that go back to the dining hall,” Vick said.
Vick said another goal of the sustainable farm is for outreach and community education and recruitment of students.
“The other aspect of the sustainable farm that we are hoping to ramp up is trying to get community involvement with farm learning classes coming in here, like urban gardening,” Vick said.
Attracting potential students through programs like that could be key to growing student numbers in the ag program.
“If we want more students, we’ve got to get these kids interested in agriculture. When I came to school in 1995, most kids were from farms. That’s changed. That is not the case anymore. We have kids involved with FFA, 4-H, have an interest in ag, have an ag project, maybe they raise chickens, maybe they had a hog or maybe they showed hogs, maybe they showed cows, but the family is one or two generations from the farm. Or, maybe they don’t have a farm background at all. It’s just something that interests them. We know we are having a hard time finding employees. We see this as a way to bring in people who have an interest in horticulture, urban gardening and things like that,” Vick said.
In addition to the equine science program and the horse center, the farm also has a swine center, a beef center, a horticultural research center, a tree improvement center and forestry program, and two agronomy research centers, at Belleville and Carbondale.
The sustainable farm also will be feeding students at SIU when classes start in the fall.
“We have a farm store that is going to be in the Student Center,” Vick said.
Students in need will be able to get vouchers from the Saluki Food Pantry in the Student Center and they can use those vouchers to buy fresh produce at the SIU Farm Store.
“We are excited about the farm store this fall and having fresh fruits and vegetables for the students,” Vick said.
In addition to supplying the farm store, the SIU sustainable farm also will be sending produce to the SIU dining halls and the Student Center, for use in their Marketplace soup and salad bar.