FAIRFIELD — A layer of crunchy snow covers the 120-acre former dairy farm in a corner of Kennebec Valley Community College’s Harold Alfond Campus on a gray afternoon in mid-December. It’s the last day of the fall semester and there’s hardly anyone around, but signs of all the work that has been put into the farm are everywhere.

There are laying hens, Katahdin sheep and pigs in a newly refurbished barn and two large high tunnels, which are like greenhouses, teeming with spinach, swiss chard, lettuce and other vegetables. Not far away, construction workers are putting the final touches on a brand new building, the Center for Farm-to-Table Innovation, which is scheduled to open in January.

The end of the semester and the first harvest of the farm’s produce — which totaled more than 6,800 pounds this fall — mark an important milestone for KVCC and it’s fledgling sustainable agriculture program. It’s been just more than one year since the school launched the program, along with a culinary arts program, making it the only community college in the state to offer a degree in sustainable agriculture and give students the chance to run a working farm.

“I think this time of year is the real test of what we’ve been able to do,” said Richard Hopper, KVCC president, as he made his way through the snow to one of the high tunnels. “When you come out here in the snow and ice, and open up one of these white buildings and see all the vegetables, it’s phenomenal.”

In 2012, the college, its main campus not far from downtown Fairfield, bought 600 acres of land on the Good Will-Hinckley campus. The school received $2.5 million in federal funding to help start the two programs, in agriculture and culinary arts, that will jointly operate out of the Center for Farm-to-Table Innovation. The center building was funded by a grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation.

Classes in agriculture started in the fall of 2013, and the third semester of the program is just wrapping up. The culinary arts program just finished its first semester.

In January, the college will open the Center for Farm-to-Table Innovation building, which includes a new lecture hall, three classrooms and three laboratories. White leather couches and coffee tables make up the decor in the entrance to the building and the walls in the classrooms are enclosed in erasable white board paint. The building is “net-zero energy” building which means it produces as much energy as it uses, and possibly a surplus that can be sold into the commercial electrical grid.

“It’s a new program and we’ve been working hard to meet the needs of all our students,” said Katherine Creswell, who began working at the farm overseeing the planting and harvesting of produce and is now the farm manager. “We’ve met some of those expectations, but there are also some things that we can’t meet. What we’re trying to do is define what those needs are as we go.”

The dairy farm on the property closed about 10 years ago, leaving four aging buildings. There are plans to turn the former milking parlor into an education and vegetable processing center. It will include a classroom — agriculture students currently take classes in the renovated former Averill High School on the campus — as well as a place to wash and pack vegetables and an animal handling area.

Renovations on the livestock barn were finished in August, and students this fall raised about 75 chickens, a handful of sheep and six large black pigs, four of which are now in the walk-in-freezer in the culinary arts kitchen.

They also cared for and ended up selling five beef cows.

Of the 6,800 pounds of produce harvested this fall, nearly half was donated to the Mainers Feeding Mainers program, which supplies food pantries around the state. Some of the food is also used in the campus cafeteria and in the culinary arts program. About five percent of the food in the cafeteria comes from the farm, and Hopper said he hopes to see that percentage increase to about 80 percent in five years, while also maintaining donations to the Mainers Feeding Mainers program.

“As time goes on we hope to become more productive,” he said. In August, the farm received organic certification from the Maine Organic Farmer’s and Gardeners Association, a goal the school decided to pursue because of the history of the site —— up until about 10 years ago it operated as an organic dairy farm.

In the high tunnels, which work like greenhouses in providing a year-round growing space, rows of spinach, lettuce and other winter-hardy crops are still being harvested and will provide the cafeteria with fresh greens throughout the winter. High tunnels aren’t heated, but they provide protection and some insulation to crops and keep the soil from freezing. The plants won’t grow, but they also won’t die. The spinach, for example, will stay fresh until it is picked, although new leaves won’t sprout on plants that have been picked.

“How to extend the growing season is a really important skill in Maine, where the growing season is short,” Hopper explains. “One of our goals is to teach students how to maximize their growing potential.”

There are 34 students in the agriculture program, some of them in their first year of study and others who will be among the program’s first graduating class in May. Some already have jobs at places like Backyard Farms, a tomato greenhouse in Madison, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, an organic seed company in Albion, while others are interested in improving or starting their own farms.

When the Center for Farm-to-Table opens in January, Hopper said the college also hopes to add programing that is not degree oriented, things like lectures that will be open to the community.

“Farming is a huge area of growth for Maine,” Creswell said. “There are so many diverse needs, whether it is working in vegetables or livestock or on a large or small scale. We can’t be everything to everybody, but we can try.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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