University of Tennessee Volunteers at SAHC Community Farm

On a chilly March morning, the beloved SAHC Community farm was graced by the assistance of ten students from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville embarking on an alternative Spring Break called VOLbreak. Rather than escaping to the sunny lands of Florida as many college students do, this ambitious group of volunteers chose to spend their break by engaging in a week of service. The group’s main host sites are organizations focused on sustainability such as MountainTrue, Elder Sage Community Garden, Urban Peace Gardens, Conserving Carolina, Bountiful Cities — and Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.

The workday was led by Community Farm Manager Chris Link, who oversees a wide variety of projects on SAHC farm properties including infrastructure improvements and the Beginning Farmer Incubator Program. Chris is currently executing an exciting new silvopasture project on the farm.

From the view of the education center, the gently sloping hillsides covered in emerald grasses have a new look to them. Deep trenches have been dug out of the red clay, contouring the pastures like the lines on a topographic map. Freshly exposed soil has been neatly placed into swales and planted with a variety of fruit and nut trees. Chris led the workday by instructing the volunteers to lightly cover the swales with straw in order to protect the recently planted trees and cover crop. As the group marched over the frozen ground to place the straw bales, the resident Highland cattle decided to join in on the action by venturing close to the project site. After a couple hours of spreading straw, it was time to take a break and snap a few selfies with the iconic Highland cattle family.

“I’ve never seen a Highland cow in real life,” quoted one student. The furry cattle were by far the highlight of the day.

Afterwards, Chris rounded up the volunteers for an informative talk about the aim of the silvopasture project and the many unique benefits this land management strategy offers in sustainable agriculture. One of the goals of silvopasture is to capture rainwater, deterring erosion and thereby allowing water to absorb into the soil and eventually, filter into local streams. Chris envisions pasturing poultry in the silvopasture project area in the future where he hopes to rely solely on the mast produced by mature fruit and nut trees to feed the animals. In times of drought, branches and leaves can be cut from the trees to supplement livestock. A daydream for the current flock of egg-laying chickens to ponder.

With the straw-spreading done, it was time to venture down to a part of the 26-acres of restored streams on the farm property for a tree planting activity. Chris supplied the volunteers with 300 bare-root trees of all kinds including false indigo, sycamore, and black locust – a nitrogen fixing species of tree native to the southern Appalachians. With shovels in hand, the group walked down to the stream to begin planting trees in a boggy wetland area. The group was attentive to the instructions on how to plant the trees and went straight to work prying the wet soil open and dropping in the bare-root tree saplings. By the time all of the trees had been situated in their new home, the sun had melted the frozen ground and it was time for a hike back up to the education center for lunch.

students prepare to plant trees in the new silvopasture project area.

Later in the day, the volunteers planted an additional 300 trees along the contoured swales of the 8-acre silvopasture project area. Travis Bordley, SAHC’s Outings Program Manager, captured the scene from a bird’s-eye-view with drone photography. Future visitors to the farm can expect to see multi-species perennial crops of trees and shrubs taking root along the swales with a wide variety of species including, locust, mulberry, paw-paw, hazelnut, sycamore, indigo, cottonwood, and elderberry amongst others.

Thank YOU, UT Volunteers!