BEREA, Ky. – The Berea College Farm, the oldest continuously operating student educational farm in the US, has cut its greenhouse gas emissions nearly 50% by expanding its organic crop production and adopting low-input livestock management practices. According to a new study published in the journal Ecological Engineering, the farm increased its acreage of organic grain and vegetable production while adopting low-input livestock production practices like rotating pigs outdoors on cropland and finishing beef cattle on grass and hay rather than corn. These initiatives led to in a shift over a seven-year period from high levels of non-renewable inputs, like nitrogen fertilizers and natural gas, to more renewable inputs, like cover crop seed and compost. The farm’s overall productive output, measured as food energy, remained level but plant-based foods, like wheat, corn and vegetables, partially replaced meats.

The Berea College Farm, according to the study’s authors, serves “as an educational laboratory for college students, providing them with opportunities to learn practical skills while testing and demonstrating appropriate methods for food production with limited resources.” The farm is diverse, consisting of “beef cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens (broilers and layers), grains, hay and vegetables/fruit.” Students are involved in all aspects of the farm’s operations, from producing crops and livestock to operating the campus farm store where the farm’s food products are sold. Much of the food produced is also prepared by and served to students in the dining hall.

Students, staff and faculty began developing a plan to improve the farm’s environmental and financial performance in 2007. The plan’s changes were implemented over several years and the farm’s inputs and outputs were monitored over the entire study period, allowing the researchers to calculate energy flows and greenhouse gas emissions.

The study highlights the interdependencies and interactions among different enterprises within diversified farming systems. Although the farm was still heavily dependent upon fossil fuels by the study’s completion, it made remarkable progress and demonstrated that many small, systematic changes can lead to large, overall improvements. Additionally, according to Sean Clark, the study’s lead author, “students working on the farm during the study period gained experience producing and using biodiesel, producing compost from food waste, raising livestock with fewer purchased inputs, heating a greenhouse with salvage wood, and repurposing hog-waste lagoons for aquaculture.”

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— Berea College