Life-changing. That’s how Jesse Poe would describe his experience as an intern on the West Virginia University Organic Research Farm. For the senior horticulture major, the last several years have been about self-discovery, as well as defining and refining career goals.
Fresh out of high school, Poe opted to spend a year in the workforce instead of enrolling in college. “I ended up working for Home Depot,” he said. “They had me in the paint department at first, but then moved me to the garden section.”
He quickly realized he knew very little about plants, but with curiosity piqued he was determined to learn all he could. “I got a lot of conflicting information from co-workers and customers and I wanted to find out what was right and what was wrong, so I started looking things up online,” he said. “Then I thought maybe I would go into something that’s outdoors.”
The Charleston, West Virginia, native then spent a year studying environmental biology at West Virginia State University where he volunteered in the greenhouse and was able to assist graduate students in the genetics department with a fruit study, the latter helping him refine his goals.
“I realized I would rather be growing plants and learning more about their growth and development than learning about their genetics,” Poe said.
After reaching out to Sven Verlinden, associate professor of horticulture in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, Poe transferred to WVU the following year. “Sven really sold me on the program,” he said.
After only a semester on campus, during the spring of 2014, Verlinden offered Poe a summer internship — the only one available — on the Organic Research Farm.
The farm is among the largest certified organic research farms in the nation dedicated to teaching, research and outreach. It’s a living laboratory linking scientific discovery with applications supporting an increasing number of organic growers and gardeners.
Poe’s primary responsibility was to oversee the farm, which included tilling, planting, harvesting and selling items.
His experience helped him realize that not only does he prefer working outdoors and in the field, but that he ultimately wants to own and operate his own organic farm one day.
“When I first moved up here, I didn’t pay close attention to what I bought,” Poe said. “Now that I’m a little bit older and more experienced with organic farming, I realize that you’re casting a vote with everything you buy. I really want to steer away from unnatural processes and live a sustainable life. I understand organic farming is not 100 percent sustainable, but it’s on that path.”
This past summer, four other interns joined Poe at the farm as the first group of students to benefit from the Butler Organics Discretionary Fund, an endowed gift from Linda Butler, professor emeritus of entomology, to support WVU’s Organic Research Project.
During her tenure at WVU, Butler was part of the multidisciplinary group of researchers who launched the initiative in 1998 and began transitioning the traditional horticulture farm into a certified organic facility. “Dr. Butler’s gift has reinvigorated our long-standing organic farm internship program,” said Sven Verlinden, associate professor of horticulture in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “For the last five to seven years, we have only been able to support one student intern; however, her gift has allowed us to give five students both crop production and research experience.”
The Organic Research project encompasses many disciplines, including entomology, animal science, horticulture, soil science, crops agronomy and weed management. The interns were all responsible for managing the farm and each was assigned to a faculty-led research project that was being conducted there.
Under the guidance of Yong-Lak Park, associate professor of entomology, Poe collected common insects and identified them as invasive or native, pest or non-pest. In addition to his entomology research, Poe also found himself taking a leadership role around the farm.
“Lots of times, I found myself, since everyone else was new and I was the only person who had been there the previous year, taking more responsibility in organizing the daily tasks,” he said.
One of those responsibilities was overseeing the market garden, a three-acre area of the 150-acre farm that produces a variety of crops: peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, lettuce and legumes, and serves as a research and marketing prototype.
“Jesse treated the market garden area of the farm as if it were his own farm,” Verlinden said. “He identified what needed to be done, sought help from faculty and fellow students in implementing crop production and was a leader in organizing student help. He is a no-nonsense kind of guy who gets the job done.”
Poe said his work on the farm has really opened his mind to the possibilities in organic farming.