Business (Managing Higher Ed)

Growing the Farm

Sustainable Agriculture


Known as “America’s Environmental College,” Unity College is a private, liberal arts college in Unity, ME. It is located 35 miles southwest of Bangor and 25 miles from the Maine coast. Unity offers an undergraduate education that emphasizes the environment and natural resources throughout the academic program. In 2007, the school was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s Best Colleges. It has appeared in the Princeton Review’s list of the leading “green” colleges, having received the highest possible rating. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching also selected Unity College for its 2010 Community Engagement Classification.

The college has a long-lived reputation for providing recruits to federal and state conservation agencies, and, more recently, for placing students in graduate school for environmental science research.

Emphasizing the Environment

Unity College is known as America’s Environmental College in part for its leading-edge approach to experiential learning that features a first-in-the-nation focus on sustainability science. On its website, Unity describes its mission in this way: “Through the framework of sustainability science, Unity College provides a liberal arts education that emphasizes the environment and natural resources. Through experiential and collaborative learning, our graduates emerge as responsible citizens, environmental stewards and visionary leaders.”

To further Unity’s focus on conservation and sustainability education, a transformative gift received recently by the college is poised to enhance teaching, research, entrepreneurship, experiential learning and programs in sustainable agriculture.

At Unity, the Sustainable Agriculture major is designed to prepare students for careers in sustainable agriculture and food systems. The program emphasizes small-scale, local, sustainable agriculture, blending applied knowledge of plants and soils, the context of environmental change, and skills necessary to problem solve and advocate for the role of agriculture in building healthy communities.

A Gift of Gardens

In the fall of 2013, Isabel McKay and Rick Thompson of Brooks, ME, a small community situated near Unity, gifted the college with Half Moon Gardens of Thorndike, a multifaceted greenhouse operation. The property comes with five years of financial support. According to, the gift is valued at $1.2 million, made up of the property and greenhouses and a $1 million financial donation — the second largest in the school’s history.

An essential goal for the Half Moon Gardens business plan is fiscal sustainability as a college-wide resource. The gift includes a five-year period of operational subsidy, during which time the college will implement an entrepreneurial, sustainable business model.

“The entire Unity College community has been energized by this generous gift by Isabel McKay and Rick Thompson,” notes Stephen Mulkey, president of the college. “The possibilities to enrich every aspect of our community are varied. Unity College seeks to become a world-class institution and this gift will help us achieve our aspirations in service to an exemplary environmental mission.”

Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, executive vice president and liaison to the Board, sees the gift as an act of generosity that will live in perpetuity.

“Who knows what kind of invention that transforms agriculture in the developing world will be discovered, or which student will extend a research project all the way from idea to the marketplace? How many jobs will be created as a result of this gift?” Khoury says. “Isabel McKay and Rick Thompson have expressed their strong environmental values through this gift. It will be honored each day by students, faculty, staff and others who will benefit from the lessons, research and innovation made possible by Half Moon Gardens and the McKay Agricultural Research Station.”

Dr. Michael Evans, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, praises the location and the positive impact that the entire endeavor will have on the college.

“Half Moon Gardens and the McKay Agricultural Research Station is just up the road and in a beautiful location for our students and faculty to work together,” Evans says. “One of the really exciting things about the research station is that it gives our students the opportunity to understand and appreciate the commercial side of agriculture.”

Since receiving the gift, officials at Unity College have been transforming the facility to support research, entrepreneurship, community outreach and scholarship, and have hired its first director.

Mary Saunders Bulan, Ph.D., has been named director of Half Moon Gardens and the McKay Agricultural Research Station. She will also serve as an assistant professor of Sustainable Agricultural Enterprise at Unity College.

Dr. Bulan possesses broad experience in sustainable farming, value-added enterprise, research, teaching and learning.

The Business of Agriculture

Half Moon Gardens will be maintained as a commercial operation that provides products for the retail and wholesale markets, thereby creating opportunities for students to learn the business, financial and customer-service skills needed to operate their own businesses. The McKay Agricultural Research Station is part of the Half Moon Gardens complex. The research station will contribute to research, outreach and teaching.

Officials at the college feel the complex will provide an economic spark for the local economy that is centered in the Unity region with partners already interested in collaborating at the Research Station, including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), Maine Farmland Trust, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, FedCo and the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society.

“The McKay Agricultural Research Station, in particular, will serve as an incubator for the local foods economy,” says Steve Kahl, director of Sustainability at Unity. “There is already an active partnership with Maine Farmland Trust concerning several current and potential projects.”

In addition to serving as source of local foods for the college and regional customers, providing produce or other products for retail sale, the Research Station will also function as a resource for classes in sustainable agriculture business management in partnership with Thomas College. Located just about 20 miles away in Waterville, ME, Thomas College is a business and liberal arts college that specializes in business, education and technology.

Unity College will also conduct outreach and research in the research station. “Research will include agricultural and alternative energy solutions for rural communities,” Kahl says.

The Next Generation of Successful Farmers

According to Isabel McKay, the next generation of farmers needs an education beyond agriculture.

“Many young farmers do not understand that in addition to delivering their product to market, they also must be business managers and handle a host of market complexities,” McKay says. “It is important that they understand how to address the administrative, legal and clerical aspects of their agricultural enterprises. I am confident that by choosing Unity College as the beneficiary of Half Moon Gardens, our young agricultural producers will be trained holistically, and learn from both the practical sense as well as from the business point of view.”

“We are especially pleased that the owners of Half Moon Gardens recognized that Unity College has the ability to use the facility in order to create the kind of programs they envisioned for students and others in the community,” says Martha Nordstrom, director of Development. “We are fortunate that the philanthropic interests of Half Moon Gardens align with Unity’s core values of respect, personal and institutional integrity, community engagement and environmental sustainability, and are excited to pursue this extraordinary opportunity.”

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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