Just a few minutes northwest of Kennesaw State University sits a 23-acre plot of land along Hickory Grove Road near Interstate 75 in Kennesaw, Ga.
Eight years ago, the land was a concrete mixing plant owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).
The KSU Field Station operates under the auspices of the Office of Research, led by Vice President for Research Phaedra Corso, who admitted being duly impressed with the facility upon first glance.
"When I first visited the Field Station, I thought it had so much potential for Kennesaw State," she said. "It had the greenhouse, a functional hydroponics lab, and all that land. I just thought it was the perfect place for the Office of Research to turn into a living laboratory."
Michael Blackwell, KSU's Field Station manager, led the efforts to remediate the land, which has allowed KSU to expand its faculty and student research and provide hands-on, real-world experiences in a unique setting. In addition to giving faculty a chance to engage in interdisciplinary research projects, the Field Station also offers the community multiple activities to learn about sustainability.
The projects happening at the Field Station span multiple colleges, from an ongoing study of European starlings by assistant professor of biology Sarah Guindre-Parker to a small farm with edible vegetables supervised by geography professors Jason Rhodes and Vanessa Slinger-Friedman. Rhodes and Slinger-Friedman's Food Forest hews closely to the original Field Station project — culinary sustainability. It sits on a third of an acre near the entrance to the Field Station and serves as a model for urban cultivation. By growing vegetables, the project seeks to lead the way to a sustainable mode of urban agriculture.
"I knew there needed to be a hands-on model for the class, so in 2019, I visited the Field Station and realized it was a perfect spot for the Food Forest," said Rhodes, who teaches a class in sustainable agriculture each spring. "The best thing about it is it's replicable in any urban setting, and we do invite people from all over the Atlanta metro area to see what we're teaching and learning at KSU."
Assistant professor of biology Mario Bretfeld also works with growing food, only in a different way. In one of the clear-glass, Quonset-hut greenhouses, Bretfeld hydroponically grows tomatoes for an ongoing, externally funded project in his PlantEcoPhysiology laboratory. Before Bretfeld arrived at KSU in 2019, his research focused primarily on the interaction between trees and their environments, particularly regarding water uptake. Over time, he realized his research had an application to agriculture and collaborated with associate professor of mechanical engineering Sathish Gurupatham (an expert in thermodynamics) for the hydroponic tomato project.
"One of the big reasons why I came to KSU was the Field Station," Bretfeld said. "I did most of my research in the Rocky Mountains, and I needed a local research spot. I realized I had access to the hydroponic greenhouse at the Field Station and could lean on the expertise of the Field Station staff; from there, the project just grew and grew."
Guindre-Parker also joined Kennesaw State in 2019. Like Bretfeld, she says the Field Station was a major drawing point. Guindre-Parker studies European starlings and how they've adapted successfully to different environments. She has around 50 nest boxes at the Field Station, which sits at the intersection of city and country for migratory birds — a valuable spot for research.
"The Field Station is an important peri-urban site, granting us access to a unique intermediate between urban and rural spaces where we can work safely in a space dedicated to research," Guindre-Parker said. "It is a great place for students new to fieldwork to get the hang of things in a space that is secure and well-equipped. It also supports large groups — including field trips for my courses."
Blackwell lists the various projects going on at the farm with a sense of pride, considering it had just one ongoing project when he arrived. The partnership with the Office of Research further solidified the Field Station as an integral part of KSU's sustained R2 status, and Corso said the Field Station perfectly illustrates the University's potential for growth.
"We have three priorities for the Field Station: research, students, and the community," she said. "Our office is dedicated to making the Field Station a hub of not only research but also teaching, and we do host classes there frequently. And for the community, we provide workshops to see what we're doing out there. The Field Station is really a jewel for KSU."
Furthering this commitment, the Field Station offers community partners educational programming, activities, and special events related to sustainability. These activities have included a Beginner Beekeeping Workshop, Small Farms Tool demonstration, and the very popular workshop on Growing Culinary Mushrooms at home.
In addition, the facility welcomes volunteers to participate in weekly community service opportunities assisting with field and ground maintenance, planting, harvesting, and helping with seasonal necessities.
For his part, Blackwell said he welcomes inquiries from every corner of the university. He said professors from engineering and architecture have been in contact, though the most interesting collaboration came from the department of dance, where students performed an interpretive piece among the rows of trees.
"My answer is always 'yes,'" Blackwell said. "Let's find a space that works for the project that you want, and we'll make it happen."