The SCAD Back40 is a sustainable urban farm

SCAD Back40: The art of organic sustainable farming

Story by Carolyn Males + Photos by Savannah College of Art & Design

SCAD, the Savannah College of Art & Design, has a farm?  

Early this spring I drove out to the SCAD Back40, the university’s one-acre farm off Route 17 in Hardeeville, to learn just what lies behind its butterfly gate. As I turned into the narrow drive, to my left stood a contemporary one-story building fronted by raised beds of leafy greens, herbs, citrus trees and florals flanking a low fountain. Established in 2018 to celebrate SCAD’s 40th anniversary, the farm’s name played off the school’s four decades and the term “back 40,” metaphorically the back acreage. SCAD has always been an educational innovator with a community conscience, the latter supported by SCAD Serve, its community service arm staffed by student volunteers. As such, it created this urban farm as a living classroom for students to connect with the land while benefiting programs like Second Harvest, a nonprofit that distributes donated produce to local food kitchens and pantries. 

Ross Miller, the farm manager, greets me at the entrance gate adorned with butterflies in flight, a fitting symbol for the transformation that this acre of land has undergone and will continue to undergo throughout the seasons. Crafted on a 3-D printer by SCAD professors Sam Norgard and Dawn Peterson, the winged sculpture symbolizes metamorphosis, connecting art, innovation and high tech with agriculture.

©Carolyn Males

A farm, not a garden

First off, it should be noted that SCAD Back40, despite its compact size, is a farm, not a garden. That’s because Miller and his student crew work the plots, using best farming practices, not garden-variety, well… gardening. The difference between these two methods soon becomes clear as Miller gives me a little science lesson along with the tour.

Organic farming, sustainable practices and native plants 

As our feet crunch along the gravel paths, Miller starts with an overview of what’s now in the farm’s 16 beds along with what will be growing here during the heat of July, the crisp days of autumn and the chill of January. On this early spring day, snap peas climb cylindrical trellises, sharing real estate with other legumes like black-eyed peas as well as cucumbers, squash and onions. Cooler-weather crops like leafy greens, radishes and turnips, he tells me, are about to be replaced by tomatoes, peppers, okra, eggplant and other warmer-weather produce. While he dedicates one bed to herbs, he also plants them among the vegetables for color and to deter pests. “We’re bio-diverse, making sure there’s a variety of color and plants in every bed that’s naturally sustainable in this environment,” he declares. 


Miller grows most of the plants from seed in the farm’s greenhouse. Today rows of small pots hold sprouts of cucumbers, onions, eggplant, squash and tomatoes and five varieties of sunflowers, the latter set to provide a bravura show of color as a warm-weather cover crop for five of the 16 beds. “I start the initial seeding here, and when it’s ready to go in, I seed a second set, and then I’ll do it again in two or three weeks. That makes it easy to rotate crops,” he says. “And it saves a ton of money.”

Roots, mulch, homemade compost

“At the end of every planting season, I’ll go through and cut off the plants at the base and leave their roots in the ground. That keeps the soil from getting too compact. The microorganisms that live on these roots break down atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates and nitrites and other natural minerals. They’re like kerosene on a fire, and the soil will be in pretty good health. Then I’ll add two or three inches of homemade compost, take a pitchfork and mess with it, and get my new crops going.

“Mulching is the simplest, most beneficial amendment you can make to your garden,” Thomas exclaims as I bend to inspect the organic carpet spread at the base of the plants. “It’s hay straw. That’s how we prevent evaporation and keep plants from drying out. It also breaks down at a pretty good click, adding basic acidity to balance out the pH of the soil.”  

“Hay straw? The SCAD Equestrian Center is just down the road, isn’t it?” I say.  He nods. “We utilize horse waste product, too, for compost. It breaks down easily.” Back in January (when I’d made a quick visit here), plant debris and other organic material had filled the cinder block composting bays behind the farm building. Today I note that they sit fairly empty, their contents having recently been worked into all the beds. 

Rotate, rotate, rotate

“We practice a basic agricultural practice, rotating our crops, bouncing back and forth with different cover crops every year. We rotate our beds, moving counterclockwise, never growing anything in the same spot year after year. Nor do we want to plant the same species or produce. If you do, there’s a higher chance of root or fungal issues.” 

The birds and the bees

“We’re organic gardeners, so we don’t use inorganic herbicides or fungicides,” Miller said. “Then what about pests?” I ask. In answer, he points to bird feeders placed at the edges of the beds as well as the center fountain where birds swoop in for a sip or a bath. “Between the birds plucking off pests and our going out in the early morning and picking them off, we keep them under control.”

Then there are the insect heroes — the pollinators. On cue, a bee buzzes in and explores the purple salvia. “Loss of habitat contributed to loss of native bees; that’s why we grow so many native flowers,” Miller says, ushering me to a bed of violets, snapdragons, phlox, dahlias, coreopsis, bee balm and other colorful blooms. “It’s like a salad bar for bees and butterflies.” The bee is not only SCAD’s mascot but a critical component of a healthy ecosystem, so the farm has an on-site apiary. Inside the farm building, which functions as a classroom-meeting space-work center, is where honey collected from the bee boxes out back are processed and jarred for sale in the ShopSCAD store on Bull Street — which brings us back to butterflies. Lots of them. In fact, Miller has tucked milkweed into the beds, another draw for monarchs, tiger swallowtails and other species. 

Before I exit through the butterfly gate, Miller fills me in on a second urban space, the hive garden that sits near The Hive dorm in downtown Savannah. “We grow a lot of stuff there, so students or anyone passing by can pick and eat while walking — blueberries, blackberries, cherry tomatoes, peppers. We donate food from there as well.” 

Endnote: Outdoor classroom

Later when I ask further about the farm-classroom connection, SCAD Vice President Darrell Naylor-Johnson paints a canvas for me, illustrating ways the farm dovetails with other student arts-related activities: plein air classes, backdrops for video and movie productions, a catalyst for creating patterns or color palettes, a source for natural dyes — the list goes on. It’s a creative spin in how a college can marry good organic farming principles with art and design. Transformational, just like the butterflies. For more information or to schedule a tour, visit

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