Countryside: On-Campus Farm Fills Prescription for Nutritious Food at Augusta Health

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Hannah Dorrel, the farm manager, and Dr. Nelly Maybee of the Diabetes and Endocrinology Clinic, check out the lettuce growing on Augusta Health’s onsite farm. Photo: Mark Miller.

Where the Stephen and Sarah Ann Yoder family once raised cattle and hay, Augusta Health has planted a giant garden to make sure their patients have plenty of fresh vegetables. 

Despite the rural nature and farming history of the communities served by the hospital, there are large areas of Augusta, Rockbridge, Nelson and Rockingham Counties that lack places to buy fresh food, said Krystal Moyers. She’s Augusta Health’s Administrative Director for Community Outreach and Partnership. Patients, especially the elderly, may no longer be able to raise the kind of gardens that once were traditional, may not drive, and are sometimes unable to find neighbors or friends to drive them regularly to shop. “This way, they can get their fresh vegetables when they come here for their appointments,” she said.

There’s another group of people they hope to reach: those unaware of the power of fresh vegetables to combat heart disease and diabetes, maintain healthy weight, and bolster immunity. There’s an ongoing educational component to the project with several ideas to make learning easy and fun. 

The farm, right on the Fishersville campus, was established in 2019 with the help of the Allegheny Mountain Institute, a non-profit that specializes in the start-up of non-traditional farms that benefit the community. With the farm well established, Augusta Health assumed oversight of the acre-wide plot this month.

Moyers, who oversees the farm as part of her position as the administrative director of community outreach and partnerships, has a farming background herself, and was enthusiastic about the innovative project. “With our high tunnels and caterpillar tunnels, we can be productive 11 out of 12 months,” she said. Right now, they can offer patients and other members of the community greens, turnips and cabbage. 

Fields of vegetables provide nutrition for Augusta Health patients. Photo: Sara Petras.

The list of vegetables they’ve raised in the five years since the farm’s start includes all the most popular, like tomatoes, beans and corn, but should you be in search of more exotic produce like artichokes, kohlrabi, turmeric, ground cherries, fava beans or fennel, you would not be disappointed.

Some of the produce finds its way to the cafeteria, but most is reserved for patients. “We could turn this whole plot into a potato farm and not fill a small percentage of the cafeteria’s demands,” Moyers said. 

We’re all familiar with the complaint of long-time doctors who say they received minimal instruction in nutrition in medical school, but this has changed, she said. “We have new doctors coming in who said the farm was a positive factor in their choice to join Augusta Health.” In fact, some doctors write a prescription for fresh vegetables for their patients to fill at the farm stand. Another project is “walk with a doctor,” which would take patients out into the farm and allow the physician to discuss the vegetables in season and talk about their benefits for health. 

The farm is managed by widely accepted best practices, Moyers said: The plots are never tilled, and do not use fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. She admits the soil on the acre they chose has a bit of an advantage over other sites they might have considered. Besides being cared for over the years by a family known for their conscientious treatment of the land, the August Health produce flourishes in the former Yoder feed lot, rich with manure as well as plant matter ground into the earth by generations of cattle. It would be hard to find richer soil, she said. That’s one of the reasons the farm has produced nearly eight tons of healthy produce since the first seeds were planted. 

None of this is unfamiliar to Moyers. She grew up on a family farm, spent many hours baling hay and weeding, and is very familiar with the painstaking care vegetables demand. Luckily, she said, the hands-on work will continue with the same farmers who helped develop the farm for the Allegheny Mountain Institute. Although they spend much of their time outside, the farmers have the use of some of the original farm buildings for office space, washing and packing. The farm has been certified as “Naturally Grown” and hand picking and watering keep it sustainable. Moyers can foresee a time when the hospital farm will be certified organic. 

Which vegetables are the most popular? “Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and onions,” she said, “but the cherry tomatoes are my personal favorite.” 

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