An Organic Approach to Sustainable Food Systems

Matthew Adkins holding a daikon radish

Matthew Adkins, an Environmental Sciences major, takes sustainability very seriously. Last fall he interned at an organic farm in Cary, N.C., gaining valuable hands-on experiences taking food full circle from seeds that germinate to plate. Adkins, supported by the the College of Natural Resources Student Assistance and Enrichment Fund, hopes to apply knowledge gained from his experience to working toward more resilient, ecologically sound, and socially-just food systems and communities in the future.

Tell us about your hands-on experience. Last fall, I completed a 150-hour internship on Burkett Farm, a small-scale sustainable farm devoted to using organic practices. I worked as a farmhand, assisting with a variety of activities, including application of fertilizer, compost, and mulch; seed selection; planting and transplanting crops; weeding and pruning; harvesting, washing, sorting, packing, and delivering fresh produce; and supervising volunteer groups on the farm. I also learned more specialized skills such as operating a walk-behind tiller, inoculating mushroom logs, and building, installing and maintaining floating row covers.

How did this experience prepare you for your future career? I plan to work with small-scale sustainable agriculture, sustainable communities and food systems. This internship allowed me to not only learn, but practice a plethora of farming and gardening skills that I will be able to apply to my future studies and career. Whether I utilize these skills working on a farm or apply this knowledge to educational efforts, working at Burkett Farm has equipped me with a strong background in small-scale sustainable farming.

Why was participating in this experience important to you? Participating in this internship was important to me because I gained a vast amount of knowledge and skills which will improve the quality of my future work. It was a great hands-on experience to build upon various coursework related to agriculture and food, such as Intro and Advanced Agroecology (CS 230 and 430), Intro to Permaculture (HS 432), and Food and Society (SOC 350). These experiences help me think about the food system and my place within it on a daily basis. This experience was also meaningful to me because I was able to directly participate in a core aspect of human society (the food system), while producing tangible goods (fresh produce), which was donated to organizations such as Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, Farmer Foodshare, and Urban Ministries of Durham.

What did you enjoy most about your experience? One of the things I enjoyed most about working at Burkett Farm was being in direct contact with nature on a regular basis by getting my hands down in the soil, nurturing and observing living plants, and working outside in all kinds of weather. In an industrial, convenience-centric consumer culture that seems to expend every effort to create an artificial distinction between human life and the natural world, working outside with soil and plants is refreshing and, pun fully intended, grounding.

Why would you recommend this experience to other students? I would recommend this experience to other students because it will increase their awareness and appreciation for agriculture. For those interested in farming or gardening, this is an excellent way to get hands-on experience. For pretty much anyone, this is a great way to learn about things that are important to every single human: nature and food.

Any advice for incoming students thinking about your major? I would advise incoming students majoring in Environmental Sciences to start thinking about their focal areas right away. Most students focus on immediate deadlines and push other decisions until the last minute, but being proactive concerning your focal area is worth it and will benefit you in the long run. I like the Environmental Sciences program because it’s interdisciplinary, and if you have an idea (or a few different ideas) about what you’d like to focus in, you can go ahead and incorporate that into the rest of your studies, and take advantage of that interdisciplinary nature. Look for the connections between your courses, even if they seem unrelated, and apply principles you learn in one to your thinking about the other. Find courses that relate to your academic and career goals and do what you can to make your program’s requirements work for you, even when it means being a little pushy and asking for what you want when you’re not sure you’ll get it. Why not try?

What else are you involved in? I am currently one of the core organizers and leaders of Students for a Democratic Society at NC State and have organized several long-term projects, in collaboration with other student groups and outside organizations, while working to keep members involved, engaged, and accountable. Also, I’m involved in the group Student Voices for Animals, which is a group of vegans, vegetarians, and animal rights proponents at NC State. Veganism has improved my life remarkably, and this group is a great source of community and an agent for positive change.