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UD graduate works with youths, grows crops at Historic Penn Farm

Becca Manning, a graduate of UD's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, has taken interests developed in Chile to become farm manager at the Historic Penn Farm in New Castle.As she worked on a dairy farm in Chile to learn how to make cheese after graduating from the University of Delaware, Becca Manning never would have imagined that her cheese making curiosity would one day lead her to an interest in small, sustainable agriculture and ultimately the role of farm manager at Delaware Greenways’ Historic Penn Farm in New Castle.

In fact, as an undergraduate majoring in wildlife conservation in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology and minoring in biological sciences, working on a farm seemed like an unlikely career destination.

Yet that is exactly where Manning finds herself and, as she puts it, it’s a perfect fit.

Manning started working in Chile as part of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) project where she became interested in small family, organic and sustainable farming. The farm on which she worked also grew vegetables for personal consumption and for the neighborhood in which they lived.

When she returned to the United States, Manning took a job making cheese in the West, where she got involved with farmers markets.

“That’s when I learned about the connection between agriculture, food and communities, and growing a healthy community and starting to really see how much that plays a role in people’s lives. I got really interested in re-connecting people with their food, and what better place to start than with young, impressionable minds,” said Manning.

At Historic Penn Farm, Manning is able to interact with students from William Penn High School who farm a four-acre plot of land, some of which is being incorporated into the school’s cafeteria system thanks to a recent Farms to Schools grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“It’s a great program. They’ve been growing on the farm for about four years now so this grant really allows them to take it to the next level and bring it into the cafeteria system,” said Manning.

The farm hires about 15 students over the summer who work Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. until noon, and those students are able to get a sense of what it’s like to be a farmer, completing all the day-to-day tasks from planting the seeds to harvesting. During the school year, around 150 students help out with their garden plot.

Manning said she thinks it’s “great to see these students really find a connection with the land where their food comes from and understand the importance of hard work and dedication. I really think that will carry with them hopefully forever, and there are just so many aspects of it that are really beneficial to them.”

Manning, who oversees all operations on the 112-acre farm, said that they also have other tenants who lease out acreage on the property, growing everything from broccoli, cauliflower and kale to pumpkins in the fall. They also grow okra, which Manning said was a big hit with the cafeterias this year.

Manning carries the education and experience she gained at UD with her on the job.

“I get to bring all that knowledge and really pay attention to the sustainability and the ecological health surrounding the farm, which plays a huge role in the success of whatever you do. Whether it’s growing crops or having animals who are foraging for grasses, it really is important to understand the ecological soundness of it, so it was kind of a perfect fit,” said Manning.

As for advice for any current undergraduates, Manning said it is important to be creative when trying to figure out a path or a career choice.

“I think it’s exciting to be a young person in this day and age. There are so many opportunities out there and with technology and the world changing the way it is, it really gives you a great opportunity to, if you’re creative enough, create your own path and create a whole new career of some sort. There are endless opportunities out there. I never thought I’d be a farmer but I’m still able to live and function as a member of society and I enjoy what I’m doing,” said Manning.

Article by Adam Thomas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.