For a second year, a group of agroforestry students from Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources worked on a collaborative service-learning program with landowners in the Catawba and North Fork valleys and the university's Catawba Sustainability Center as a component of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation's agroforestry course.

The program’s primary objective is to facilitate shared whole-farm agroforestry learning — the combination of agricultural and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy, and sustainable land-use systems — by pairing students with landowners throughout the semester. In addition to lectures and laboratories on agroforestry principles, history, and practices, students conduct a series of service-learning property- and landscape-level assessments.

The learning initiative promotes semester-long discussion and planning to integrate trees and crops as part of an agroforestry plan that incorporates the biological, social, economic, and technical aspects of whole-farm management. At the same time, the students must meet the goals of the participating landowners. Sean Allen of Crozet, Va., a junior forestry major in the College of Natural Resources, observes, “This provides an element of community interaction that allows us to gain working knowledge of agroforestry while dealing with real-world problems.”

At the property (i.e., landowner) level, the program helps achieve important land management objectives such as reducing soil erosion, minimizing nutrient leaching, maximizing marketable crop production, augmenting income, and increasing biodiversity. On a larger scale, the program helps tend the environmental, social, and economic well being of the Catawba and North Fork valleys.

Courtney Kimmel, coordinator of Catawba Landcare, a local organization promoting sustainable land management and community building that has been very supportive of the program, claims, “People in the community who have been involved in the project are excited about the ideas that students come up with and others want to be involved.”

Some aspects of the plans presented last year have led to on-the-ground implementation at the Catawba Sustainability Center, an establishment founded by the university that seeks to promote sustainable farming and environmental preservation in the community. Center director Christy Gabbard says, “Working with students is a win-win for the Catawba Sustainability Center and for the students. For the students, it provides a unique opportunity for experiential learning with real-world applications. For the Catawba Sustainability Center, it provides an opportunity for consultation to gain new perspectives and creative means for implementation.”

The agroforestry program demonstrates the remarkable relevance of service scholarship at Virginia Tech. Students and participating landowners gather at the conclusion of the semester to celebrate this collaborative learning experience and present their plans for productive, sustainable, and preferred management options.

  • Property owners in the North Fork, Catawba, and Ellet valleys who are interested in participating in next year’s agroforestry service learning project can e-mail John Munsell, the course instructor, or call (540) 231-1611.

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