By Adam Turner
As far as potential majors go, the possibilities seem endless at Eastern.
One quick scroll through a course catalog will reveal a huge variety of choices, from the ordinary (English, mathematics) to the less common (aviation, sports management).
One major that seems to have slipped off the radar and many students’ minds, however, is agriculture, which is surprising, considering how deeply connected the program is to the heart of the university.
“EKU traces its roots back to 1906, and there was, I think, in 1911 an initiative put before the Board of Regents saying that we need to prepare our students to serve in agriculture in the state,” said Rick Griebenow, director of University Farms. “So right behind the teaching aspect of the school, agriculture came in a close second.”
With more than 180 students involved in the program and fewer than 20 members on staff, the Department of Agriculture certainly isn’t the largest major offered on campus. However, with the program’s Stateland Dairy Farm preparing to celebrate its 100th year anniversary next year, now is the perfect time to shine a light on what may be one of Eastern’s best hidden treasures.
Located several miles off campus, the Department of Agriculture’s two farms may be the most hidden part of the program. Even so, their histories and what they provide to Eastern make them more than worthwhile for students to discover.
As you drive onto the property, the first site you approach is one of the university’s oldest: Stateland Dairy.
“Originally, Stateland Dairy, part of its function was to provide milk for the dormitories back in 1912, and we’ve had an ongoing operation ever since as part of the Department of Agriculture,” Griebenow said.
Built to supplement the agriculture program on campus, the farm thrives today as an immersive, hands-on, teaching facility. Led by dairy manager Charles Powers, there are around 120 cows on the property, including 50 to 70 lactating cows. Each cow on average can produce about 65 pounds of milk per milking session, checked by the health department on a regular basis.
In addition, all of these cows are registered Holsteins, and many of them can be traced back to five original cows purchased for the farm in the 1920s.
Griebenow said he feels a special connection to this farm animal in particular:
“My dad says I got bit by the cow bug when I was 10 and never recovered.”
Operating alongside the dairy is Meadowbrook Farms. Established in 1974, Meadowbrook was added to the department to provide opportunities to work with different kinds of crops and livestock that were not available at the dairy, such as beef, swine, sheep and corn. Led by manager Ray Marcum, it consists of 720 rolling acres of land, with approximately 135 acres populated by corn.
There are three primary operations within the beef unit of the farm: the cow-calf, the backgrounding and finishing enterprises.
The cow-calf operation consists of about 150 cows at any given time. There are both spring and fall herds so the students have the ability to learn throughout the school year.
According to the farm’s website, the backgrounding operation involves “growing purchased and raised steers and heifers from approximately 450 pounds to 800 pounds” and feeding about 400 head each year. The finishing operation then involves around 25 head a year, strictly for educational purposes, and places “800 pound steers on a high grain ration…fed to approximately 1200 pounds.”
Though he certainly feels an affinity toward these animals, Griebenow said many misunderstand these animals’ roles in our lives. He is hoping to encourage the university to support a food production or appreciation course requirement to help students get a better grasp on where their food is coming from.
“In order for there to be meat and eggs on people’s tables, something has to be sacrificed,” Griebenow said. “And in my opinion, if my death could mean the life of 20 to 30 more people for an extended period of time, I think that would be a good reason to end a life, and animals have that opportunity, to provide food and fiber. A lot of it doesn’t even require their lives, so to speak. Milk, for example, is a natural product. We have turned the modern dairy animal into a freak of nature; a dairy cow can give enough milk for 25 to 30 calves. It’s a testimony, I guess, to breeding characteristics and our forefathers, what they were able to do with the animals.”
As far as what the animals themselves eat, a corn silage is prepared in a commodity shed on the property.
“All their feeds are stored in here and mixed in a grinder, so everything each individual animal needs is delivered to the bowl in front of them,” Griebenow said.
Cows are not all the farm has to offer, however; there are swine and sheep operations as well.
The swine unit takes the pigs from birth (farrowing) in a new nursery onward. They now house about 60 sows, or adult female swine, at any given time. Around 400 of these pigs are marketed and sold each year.
Despite ultimately being sold and used for food, Griebenow argues that their goal for the swine, as well as the other animals, is a noble one.
“Our goal is to give them all the best life possible for as long as we can,” Griebenow said.
Finally, the sheep flock, according to the website, “consists of approximately 40 head of purebred Suffolk cross ewes,” or adult female sheep. They are often born at the beginning of each year and around 45, 100-pound lambs are marketed each year.
Perhaps more so than any other curious animal there, the sheep are particularly skittish.
“Where one goes, they all go (laughs),” Griebenow said.
Though these farms seem far off and detached from campus life, visitors are always welcome and guided tours of the facilities can be scheduled.
In Griebenow’s mind, the reasoning is simple:
“[The farm] belongs to you as much as it does to us.”
Located a bit closer to home are the Department of Agriculture’s greenhouses. Established several decades ago and now led by horticulture technician and Eastern alumnus John Duvall, the greenhouses and its surrounding properties provide a home for students interested in the horticulture branch of the department.
any students within the program go on to do work in jobs as varied as lawn care, golf course superintendents, greenhouse managers, landscapers, floriculture and more.
Duvall stressed the benefit of giving students a legitimate greenhouse experience.
“One of the good things about our program here at Eastern is it’s not only classroom learning, but it’s also a lot of hands-on learning,” Duvall said.
And these students have plenty of plants to get their hands on. Within the various facilities, there are countless different types of flowers and plants, including roses, poinsettias, hydrangeas, mums, ferns and seemingly endless varieties of grasses.
The roses in particular get special attention. They are tended to and cut every day by faculty and students, even on weekends.
“We have 15 beds of roses, all used for our floral design classes,” Duvall said. “We have a beginning and advanced course. We try to grow all of the flowers here for that class. It takes a really specific humidity and temperature to grow a really perfect flower, so you don’t see a lot of roses grown in this part of the country. It is usually California or South America.”
Though the roses are a highlight, the program also grows more than 1,000 poinsettias and, in addition to selling some across campus, helps out the school with them.
“We kind of do a collaboration with the university to help them out because they decorate campus with the poinsettias, so we provide them with the poinsettias and they help us by getting us some of the pots,” Duvall said.
Given all the flowers that are grown here, one may wonder if they are used for profit. However, Duvall said the flowers are used primarily for educational purposes.
“There has been discussion about implementing a floral shop on campus though,” Griebenow added.
Many of the plants are watered through a type of drip irrigation system.
“Each table has its own little water valve that we turn on that gives us a quick way to water all of them,” Duvall said.
In one of the greenhouses, Duvall said they keep a myriad of tropical plants throughout the year, such as pineapple plants, cacti and even banana trees.
Unfortunately, he has never been able to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
“Last time I cut them off [the bananas], a student took them, so I never got to try them! (laughs)” Duvall said.
The students even prepare their own potting soil using the department’s own recipe.
Outside the greenhouses, the horticulture branch also maintains several other surrounding areas.
“We also have a turf plot area, an orchard, a display garden with a water pond that students have helped build,” Duvall said. “We also even have a par-three golf hole that goes around the back of the business department. Students helped build it, maintain it and use it for practical experience.”
The display garden, while being a marvel in itself, is also a host to another Eastern attraction: live fish.
“There’s actually goldfish in there. Tons of them,” Duvall said. “They’re all originally from the Ravine, so now all the campus goldfish are in this pond.”
The par-three golf hole, which is also worked on by students in the professional golf management major, is a newer addition to campus that is receiving a fair amount of attention.
“The golf hole actually gets a lot more student use than a lot of the stuff we have, between the business school and us,” Griebenow said. “We actually get a lot of student hours maintaining that golf course.”
Though not specifically a part of the Department of Agriculture, EKU CRAFT is undoubtedly an important and overlooked portion of the university.
“CRAFT is the Center for Renewable Alternative Fuel Technologies, and it is an inter-departmental program evaluating alternative energies and alternative fuels,” said Bruce Pratt, director of CRAFT. “We’ve utilized and cooperated with the Department of Agriculture. We involve the ag department, chemistry, biology, economics…but obviously, if you have bio-fuels, the bio part is Ag. And that’s where my academic background is.”
Pratt, former chair of the Department of Agriculture, elaborated on what the three-year-old program actually does on campus.
“Our current focus is taking biomass, which is plant material—we are looking at switch grass, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work with other biomass sources—and we’re going to break the stored energy down in that plant material,” Pratt said. “That’s the photosynthetic energy that has been created during the growing season. We’ll get the sugars out of that plant material and feed sugars to algae that grow in tanks, and we’ll then harvest and extract the oils from the algae to make primarily diesel and jet fuel.”
More plainly speaking, “We’re trying to remove and reduce our dependence on not only imported fuel but also fossil fuels that are releasing greenhouse gases,” Pratt said.
This may seem like a pretty complicated and important project for a university Eastern’s size to tackle, but Pratt said there is a crucial explanation behind doing this work here.
“The reason why we’re doing it here is because Kentucky has great opportunities for producing biomass,” Pratt said. “Kentucky is positioned to be a player in bioenergy.”
Griebenow explained why this region is in this great position.
“Kentucky is situated in such a way that the climate is almost ideal for production and there is not place in the United States that is better suited for such a production,” Griebenow said. “Very even precipitation patterns, and people don’t realize how unique that is.”
“You go out to the Western part of the United States and you really appreciate it (laughs),” Pratt said.
Having already received most of its funding from the Department of Defense and found a corporate partner in General Atomics, CRAFT is currently in the research and development stage of its growth. The plan now is expansion.
“We’re at the point where we’d like to scale up to a couple thousand gallons of year kind of capacity,” Pratt said. “That’s a fairly expensive proposition, probably about 7 million dollars to put that together. You run that for a couple years, prove out the technology, and then you scale it up to a demonstration facility, might be a million gallons a year. Finally, in a commercial size facility, you do 20 to 30 million gallons a year.”
Pratt explained the dire need for an alternative fuel source.
“What’s happening is we burn coal and utilize our petroleum, our crude oil, and we’re releasing those fossil fuels, that carbon that had been sequestered two hundred million of years ago,” Pratt said. “It took us a hundred million years to do that, and we’re releasing it in a hundred years.”
Regardless of what specific part of the Department of Agriculture you are discussing, it is clear to current chair and professor John Settimi what its focus is.
“Food, energy and a livable planet,” Settimi said. “We talk about and work on the big issues of the day. The world population’s multiplying, and we got to feed them all. There is debt and burning fossil fuels…All of the big problems in the world and agriculture can help find the answers.”