Most everyone knows and expects to read or hear about cattle farms producing Grade A marketable beef in all different parts of the United States. Have you ever thought about tilapia being raised on a farm? How about freshwater shrimp on the farm? Would you ever consider that farm being located in Eastern Kentucky? All of that is true and can be found at Morehead State University in northeastern Kentucky.
Why and how did a regional public university develop such a program? For many years, Morehead State used a working farm as an outdoor classroom for agriculture students in its College of Science and Technology. In addition to agricultural science students, the farm also served as a lab for students majoring in veterinary technology, as well as a home for the equestrian team and a variety of horsemanship classes. The agricultural science students participated in the development of greenhouse vegetables and a variety of bedding plants utilized around campus for landscaping.
One of the early major crops produced on the MSU Farm was a cash crop very familiar to all of Kentucky. That cash crop was burley tobacco, which was sold to major tobacco companies and destined to become cigarettes or smokeless tobacco. That all began to change around 2004 when the federal subsidy monies for tobacco farming disappeared, forcing many working farms to seek other revenue-producing crops. As the subsidies faded and more and more communities began to pass no-smoking ordinances, it became very difficult for a public university to stay in the tobacco business. Also evident to the university leadership was the need to develop agricultural opportunities that small farmers in Eastern Kentucky could learn and use to replace the revenue eventually to be lost from the waning tobacco market.
Splashing Into Seafood
As most small and large farms alike have one or more ponds in their acreage, the idea to raise
tilapia for harvest and sale to the food service industry was seen as one option. As a regional public university, part of the mission of Morehead State was to help cultivate economic development in that region, and fish farming was seen as a tremendous opportunity to do just that. Thus was born the first of a series of fish harvests in a pond on a former tobacco farm.
It was evident that once the fish were ready for harvest, it was unlikely that restaurants, groceries, or individuals would be interested in buying tilapia that still needed to be processed. Now came the time to create a USDA-approved processing center at the farm that could serve as the outlet to sell the fresh fish. The equipment was bought, installed, and inspected for USDA licensing, and now we were in business.
It was only a matter of time until the farm staff was ready to spread their wings and expand into freshwater shrimp. Fingerling shrimp were purchased and stocked in another pond on the farm. They began to flourish and became extremely popular among the locals in and around Morehead, Kentucky. Most of the people in and around our community were already familiar with the great strawberries, blueberries, and other produce that was available at the MSU Farm, so it was not a surprise that there was never a surplus after it was announced that fresh shrimp were also available at the farm.
From Farm To Dining Hall
This variety of product availability now led us to conversations with our dining services partner at the university about the possibility of offering these locally produced items as part of our regular dining options. When approached with the idea, the ARAMARK management team jumped at the opportunity to join us. A fact-finding meeting was held that included leadership from auxiliary services, ARAMARK, the department of agriculture sciences, and the dean of the College of Science and Technology. Discussions centered on what produce were best suited for use in dining services and could be readily available from our farm. As our executive chef and the horticulturalist got more familiar with each other, they began brainstorming about all sorts of varieties of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and other vegetables that could be grown and available on a regular basis. How exciting it was to listen to these two enthusiastically plan the next growing season in terms of what could be produced.
While this conversation was taking place, Morehead State University was in the process of acquiring another farm that was home to a third-generation orchard. Browning Orchard was a very familiar location for the purchase of all varieties of apples and blueberries. The family had decided to cease operations and was interested in gifting the farm to the university. What an opportunity for our department of agricultural sciences to develop yet another outdoor laboratory for our students. There was also an opportunity to boost the shrimp and tilapia production with the addition of multiple ponds on this new farm.
Fresh apples, fresh blueberries, and locally produced apple juice were now in our inventory of available items from our farming operations. Fresh tarts and turnovers made from these locally grown apples have now become some of the favorites on the dining services menu with students, faculty, staff, and visitors.
The stage is now set for creating the supply chain process to move this fresh produce into the ARAMARK purchasing system. As with all major projects, we did have some legal and safety requirements to meet in order to be an approved supplier, but through our great partnership with ARAMARK, that was actually only a formality. With that requirement out of the way, we were now ready to begin delivering produce ready for consumption by our students, faculty, and staff both in the dining hall and at special catered events.
One of the first events featuring our freshwater shrimp was a dinner event hosted by the president of the university, which included a U.S. congressman as his guest. Our executive chef prepared a shrimp cocktail appetizer that was incredible, and the guests were amazed when they learned that the extra-large jumbo shrimp had been grown here in Morehead, Kentucky. That dinner also included salads made from locally produced lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, and cucumbers served with a special recipe dressing made exclusively by our chef. It has now become a routine offering of MSU Farm produce for special catered events and everyone loves it!
The most recent addition to the farm to campus mix is locally grown beef from our cattle herd maintained by our agricultural sciences faculty and students. We have been able to secure an agreement with a locally owned meat processing center that provides the services necessary for meat production. Our faculty and students have developed a feed mix that produces top-grade beef that is one of the favorites of our students in the dining hall. We are now making plans to expand the meat production to include pork products from swine that are also part of our farm mix.