Soon after arriving at Unity College, Dr. Melik Peter Khoury was approached by a potential donor with an intriguing proposal.
Where once there was a greenhouse and garden store in a rural town, could there be a sustainable agriculture living laboratory?
Khoury thought so. It would become the Unity College McKay Farm and Research Station, one of the largest philanthropic gifts ever secured by the college, and an emblem of the entrepreneurial approach to innovating higher education that has become a hallmark of Khoury’s presidency.
“In my four years at the college, this was the most interesting proposal to me, personally,” he said. “To have a facility like this given to us from the ground up, where students could walk right in and begin learning the ins and outs of sustainable agriculture, to have developed a relationship with local people who see Unity College as a valid place to do an educational partnership, to be able to have outputs like affordable food for customers and economic opportunity for farmers. … It was the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come along often, and one which I think offers a microcosm of how higher education is being transformed right here in Unity, Maine.
“As an institution that has adopted sustainability science as our ethos, this farm is becoming not only a living educational lab for our students, but also an economic driver in the region, giving local farmers a way to produce their food more efficiently. Places like McKay Farm are where local food comes from,” he said.
When the college accepted the gift — then known as Half Moon Gardens — from Isabel McKay and Rick Thompson in December 2013, it gave Unity College an immediate toehold in Maine’s leading farm-to-table movement, fostered community relationships with the area’s significant small-scale agricultural cluster, and helped make the school’s robust B.S. curriculum in sustainable agriculture even more attractive to current and prospective students.
Khoury said McKay Farm & Research Station is serving as he had hoped, a direct extension of the 225-acre campus nearby.
With five greenhouses, one hoop house, and a residential dwelling on 13 acres, innovative projects and research that have already occurred at the facility include:
+ A partnership to produce seedlings for Cultivating Community, which operates an incubator farm for immigrant and refugee farmers in Lisbon, Maine.
+ A multi-year partnership with The American Chestnut Foundation with students and faculty cultivating seedlings at McKay then planting them statewide in a series of field experiments intended to result in large-scale restoration of the American chestnut tree.
+ Retail and wholesale sale of high-quality produce to The Unity Food Hub, Unity College Food Services, Mount View High School, and various local co-ops.
+ Community seminars on how to care for livestock, make goat’s milk soap, get rid of greenhouses pests sustainably, and more.
+ An expanded farm-and-garden supply operation that offers a farmstand with flowers, garden supplies, and plenty of delightful surprises.