Orchards will help College meet educational, wellness and stewardship goals

Oct. 7, 2011
Contact: Maryville College Office of Communications
865.981.8207; communication@maryvillecollege.edu

Dr. Drew Crain “guarantees” that the apples grown on the Maryville College campus will taste better than the ones you buy at the grocery store. A project Crain has had on his mind for four years, on-campus orchards are coming to fruition as a result of his collaboration with Bruce Guillaume, director of Mountain Challenge, and Andy McCall, director of the College’s Physical Plant.

The project is being funded by the first-ever grant from the Gerald W. Gibson Professional Development Fund, which was established in 2009 in honor of Gibson’s retirement as president of the College. According to the fund’s description, it “supports faculty and staff in the development of distinctive programs that will enhance the reputation of Maryville College.”

Work began this past summer on clearing two half-acre plots in the College Woods for apple and pear orchards, one on a floodplain near Brown’s Creek, the other on a knoll that used to be pastureland. The third orchard will be near the Crawford House. In addition to the orchards, three plots of blackberries and raspberries will be planted in locations along existing fencelines and at the edge of the woods. Another orchard is planned at Penrose Farm in West Knoxville, where the Maryville College Equestrian Team stables its horses.

The proposal submitted for the Gibson Fund describes the project as a “joint venture” among Academic Affairs, Student Development and the Physical Plant. According to Crain, the orchards combine Guillaume’s promotion of wellness and healthy lifestyles, McCall’s desire to maximize the College’s land for learning and aesthetics, and Crain’s goal of teaching science as something tangible, something beyond the abstractions often found in textbooks.

“Science is much more than something that’s written in a textbook,” said Crain, a professor of biology at the College. “Science is part of everyday life. In the last 50 years, we’ve lost that because we’ve gotten away from sustenance living. We’re so spoiled by the grocery store that we don’t understand the basic science that goes into food production.”

Crain grew up on a farm in South Carolina with small orchards of apple, pear, peach and cherry trees.

“I miss fresh fruit and orchards,” he said. “I didn’t realize growing up how awesome it was to be able to pick fresh fruit, and I wanted to show students that it’s an easy thing to do.”

The next step in the process is to select and purchase disease-resistant fruit trees that are well adapted to the area. Crain said that the plan is to go all-organic and avoid using pesticides and fertilizer on the trees.

In early spring 2012, holes will be dug using an augur. Soil samples from each plot will be taken, and the trees planted. Four apple trees and two pear trees will be planted at each plot.

Crain estimates that the trees will be bearing fruit in three years at the earliest. He is particularly excited that the harvest of the fruit will take place in September and October, when students are on campus. In addition to research projects and labs, Crain and Guillaume will enlist the help of students in the pruning and monitoring of trees and bushes. Staff members in the Physical Plant will keep the plots mown.

The half-acre plots in the College Woods are designed so that the orchards can be expanded beyond the original planting.

Guillaume, whose Mountain Challenge headquarters are in Crawford House, said he sees the project as a continuation of a “living heritage.” Built in 1876 and named for Professor G.S.W. Crawford, Crawford House was home to several members of the Crawford family until 1985, when the family sold the farmhouse and eight surrounding acres to the College. Still enjoying strong ties to MC, surviving members of the Crawford family “got really excited” when they heard about the new orchard project, Guillaume said.

“When they lived in the house, they had their own orchard and large vegetable garden,” he explained, adding that he is happy that the new orchard project is reviving a tradition established by valued members of the MC community who have long-term, emotional ties with the College.

Crain said he does not know of any other college of MC’s size that has a project like this one. Most land-grant colleges (like the University of Tennessee) have orchards, he said, but their focus is on educating agriculture students about maximizing yields. The MC orchard project’s goals are much more practical and far-reaching.

“We want to teach the average person how easy it is to plant and maintain these trees and harvest the fruit,” Crain said.

Orchards already educational

Already the orchard plots have begun to fulfill their educational purpose. For his Senior Study, Adam Patterson ’12 has surveyed the animals in the areas before and after the clearing of the plots.

Patterson, who spent every morning and every evening this past summer in the College Woods, tabulated birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. To carry out his survey, he had to devise his own methods of measuring each animal group. The research has been valuable to Patterson not only for completing his Senior Study, but also for helping him focus his attention on graduate programs emphasizing vertebrate conservation and behavior.

To get a count of mammals, he used humane traps (which means the animals are unharmed) baited with processed cheese and peanut butter.

Patterson surveyed the bird life by watching and by listening for calls in the mornings and evenings, a methodology made more difficult by surrounding urban activity. Patterson was surprised by some species not typically seen on the MC campus, in particular, indigo buntings and red-winged blackbirds.

Patterson counted only two snakes (black rat snakes) and discovered from the motion sensitive trail camera that he positioned on site that someone’s pet, a spaniel mix, was robbing the traps of cheese and peanut butter.

Patterson passed on the skills and knowledge he was acquiring in his research by allowing local high school students to accompany him to the plots. He was able to teach them survey methods and instill in them a fascination with the natural world.

As trees grow, so will research

Crain expects to use the orchards as outdoor laboratories, especially for his Science 150: Principles in Scientific Investigation classes. Early research will involve measuring the growth of the trees, and in a few years, students will be able to investigate which plots are most productive and which practices lead to the best yield.

The project is also designed to “directly promote scholarly and professional growth of Crain, Guillaume and McCall by providing a link among concern for the environment, effective knowledge and skills relative to fruit production, actual fruit production and broader individual actions,” according to their grant proposal.

Each of the plots offers different conditions for soil, elevation and sunlight. Crain predicts that either the knoll or the Crawford House site will be the most productive. The sandy soil of the floodplain next to Brown’s Creek will probably not produce the greatest yield, he predicted. No other study of its kind has been conducted that he knows of, Crain said, so he’s eager to see what the research reveals about optimal conditions for orchards.

One of the project’s most outstanding characteristics is its uniqueness. According to the group’s proposal, it “combines the efforts of Academic Affairs, Student Development, and Physical Plant to promote wellness and environmental stewardship through planting and maintaining orchard and berry plots. We are unaware of any such replicated orchard and berry plots at any other academic institutions.”

This story was written by Kim Trevathan, Assistant Professor of Writing/Communication and freelance writer for the Office of Communications.

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,198.