From Eden Hall Pioneer to Farm Manager
Fact: Eden Hall Campus has its superstars and they get the lion’s share of the press. The solar high tunnel, with its floor heated by geothermal heating. The aquaculture lab with its 500 rainbow trout. Solar panels, generating enough electricity to power 14 homes for one year. Items like these have been written about in publications ranging from Architect Magazine to USA Today—deservedly so.
But when Tony Miga first visited the campus in 2012 as a prospective graduate student in the process of vetting the brand-new Master of Sustainability program, none of that was there. What he remembers seeing were some dilapidated stables, and the big barn. And the orchard.
“It was just dripping with apples,” he says. “It was untended and unmowed and in pretty rough shape, but it was really cool to feel like I’d just discovered this little pocket of apple trees.”
The orchard still feels a little off the beaten Eden Hall track, even though it’s not. You follow a winding path a little way down from the Esther Barazzone Center, a clearing opens, and there they are: mystery trees. In a sense.
“There are at least five varieties of apples we’re trying to identify, since we don’t have the planting records” says Miga, who is now the Eden Hall farm manager. “We’ve been collecting a few from each tree, photographing them, tasting them, and cross-referencing them using online sources. We can eliminate certain possibilities— these trees are between 50 and 65 years old, so anything newer than that is out—but it’s a pretty overwhelming task because there’s at least two thousand named varieties of apples.”
Have they successfully identified any?
“I think so!” Miga says. “I think this one here’s a Newtown Pippin.” Graduate student Maura Rapkin, harvesting apples nearby, laughs.
After receiving undergraduate degrees in English and History from Kenyon College, Miga spent two years teaching in rural North Carolina with nonprofit Teach for America. Then he taught in the Bronx, and began developing video resources of educational best practices for teachers. In 2010, Miga and his wife Bethany moved to Pittsburgh.
Within a couple of years, he was working part-time at a nursery near his house. “I had been spending so much time and energy creating things that just lived on the web. I was ready for a change,” he says. The nursery was owned by alumnae of Chatham’s landscape architecture program. When Miga looked into Chatham, he found the brand- new Master of Sustainability program. He joined the first cohort, and spoke on behalf of the students at the campus groundbreaking in 2012.
Miga entered the MSUS program with an interest in rainwater and stormwater management; in fact, his Master’s thesis was the design and implementation of an ambitious, award-winning rainwater catchment system that Eden Hall still uses for irrigation. But within a couple of months of starting the program, he found his focus shifting.
“Because I live closer to Eden Hall Campus than to Shadyside Campus, I was up there all the time,” he says, “and so was (former Eden Hall farm manager) Allen (Matthews). He was doing pretty much everything there was to do with the farm, and I kept showing up and saying ‘how can I help?’ I basically learned farming through an informal apprenticeship with Allen.”
I ask whether he feels a tension between trying to run a productive, operative farm and being in an academic setting and experimental research space. “I see the ‘Farm’ as having three primary drivers,” he says. “The first is food production. We’re actively trying to farm in the traditional sense. Eighty-five percent of what we grow is served here or at the Shadyside Campus, and maybe eventually we’ll produce food to generate revenue of some kind. Then there’s the academic side—the farm as lab, not just for classes, but also for faculty research. Third is the community piece. How can we benefit the local and regional community, and how can we benefit from them? The things we do that I’m most proud of hit more than one of those drivers. If we hold a workshop, for example, it’s academic in one sense, but also provides a benefit to the community.”
If you think that being the sole full-time employee tasked with running a farm— managing student workers, volunteers, and equipment; planning, planting, and harvesting—sounds like there’s probably plenty of time left over for other tasks, you know a thing or two about Chatham. Here are a few of the other things Miga does: he develops and runs workshops (including shiitake and oyster mushroom production; rain barrel construction and installation; honey extraction; growing ginger; small- scale grain production); works with faculty on ways to use the farm in coursework and projects; teaches (last spring he taught an “Introduction to Organic Farming” Maymester course; a longer course may be in the works); and reaches out to local businesses, farms, and individuals to identify opportunities for collaboration. He also shows people around a lot. I ask what he gets most excited to show people.
It's not a surprise when he mentions the solar tunnel and hoop houses—they fully deserve the “oohs” and “aahs” they inspire, and once inside, Miga is effervescent as he talks about the characteristics of seeds, explains microgreens (see page 22), and points out tomatoes with the impossibly atmospheric name Indigo Rose. “This is way fancier than any high tunnel or hoop house that you’re ever going to see,” he says. “It’s nice to have the bells and whistles here that allow us to do so much here.”
“Microgreens demand a really high price–up to $30 per pound,” says Miga. “Compare that to something like lettuce, which is like $2.19 per pound wholesale. But the reality is that any plant that germinates relatively quickly can be a microgreen. You just have to seed it really heavily, to get a thick carpet of green, and harvest it when it’s really young.”
But there's a special part in his heart for the lesser-known stars of Eden Hall. The orchard. The laying yard for the shiitakes. The apiary. The 30-plus-acre field crop area known as Elsalma (a portmanteau of the names of Eden Hall Farm founder Sebastian Mueller’s daughters Elsa and Alma).
“It’s amazing to have both things like the solar tunnel and Elsalma,” says Miga. “It means we can work on both ends of the farming spectrum: field production and carefully managed microenvironments.”
We get in his white pick-up truck and drive to Elsalma—maybe five minutes from the Esther Barazzone Center. Elsalma consists of two parts: a four-acre fenced-in area that serves as the primary field for vegetable production, and nearly 30 more acres that reach to the treeline, where grains are planted. Being able to point to first four aces and then to 30 acres gives students some sense of scale, says Miga. Elsalma, it must be said, does not look immediately cool. It’s October, and most everything has been harvested. But I don’t see what he sees until he explains it to me.
“See that patch of foxtail and a little bit of rye that's coming up over there?” Miga asks, pointing out into the 30 acres. “That’s what all of this would look like if we left it for a year. Mid-chest-height weeds and grasses. I remember feeling so daunted and overwhelmed, thinking okay, I know whatthis space is supposed to look like. But how do we get those 30 acres to look like these four acres?”
“But now I find that it’s this empowering and exciting thing to show students and visitors— okay, here’s how we’re going to do it. Here’s the equipment we’re going to use. Here’s how we’re going to do it in a way that benefits the soil and least impacts the woodlands and the watershed that we’re in. Here’s how we can add organic matter to soil to make it easier for the plants we want to grow.”
“Even though it’s my job to know everything about this farm, I love that I’ll never be sure that I do,” says Miga. “For example, this spring I happened to be mowing the perimeter of the open pasture, and I saw probably about 15-20 mulberry trees dotting the perimeter that I’ve never noticed before, simply because I’ve never been right there just as they’ve been fruiting. So I got to say to Chris (Galarza, head chef at Eden Hall Campus) ‘Hey, there’s this cool thing that we can harvest if we want that we didn’t even know was there.’”
“And there’s other things out here, like milkweed. It’s the sole food for monarch caterpillars. Monarchs have gone through a huge decline—some estimates say 90% population decline—due to ingredients in pesticides. So we try to leave stands of milkweed out here for them. This summer I got to see a ton of monarch butterflies out here.”
“And this,” Miga points up a pole about twelve feet high, “is a kestrel box. I’d seen these birds around the property, and they’re considered an endangered species in the state. I’d love to put up more boxes to see if we can get a mating pair of kestrels. They’re amazing and striking birds on their own, but they also eat rodents and large bugs. It’s nice to have things like that around.”
We climb back into the pickup truck. “When I was in the MSUS program,” says Miga, “we read an article called ‘The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’ by William Cronon.2 The premise is that there exists this false dichotomy between humans and nature. People look at woodlands and say ‘that’s natural’, but if you go in there,” he gestures at the woodlands, “half the stuff is either invasive or been planted. The whole area has been used for timber production, and influenced by the watershed around it, which is influenced by what we put on the fields. I think the less of a distinction we make between a ‘natural space’ and a ‘human space’, the better. Farming, to me, is right at the juncture of those things.”