SHERIDAN — A field just south of the Mars Agriculture Center on the campus of Sheridan College hasn’t had trees in more than a century, perhaps ever. That changed last month with the planting of several apple trees and other fruit plants in the first full-fledged orchard at Sheridan College. The approximately 1-acre stretch of land has long been used for various research activities and projects but never had the array of plants that now grow in its ground.
College employees planted the orchard shrubs and trees in June. It will take several years until they are fully productive, though. The eventual produce will include apples, honeyberries, cherries, juneberries and possibly pears.
Ami Erickson, Sheridan College agriculture science and biology instructor, applied for a grant through the Wyoming Department of Agriculture for about $14,000 over the next two years. Sheridan College is also helping fund orchard supplies and programs, which will include community workshops and likely a community garden in a small corner of the orchard.
Erickson said the college worked with Landon’s Greenhouse and Nursery to find trees reliable and receptive to soil that could produce valuable fruit people like to eat.
Erickson’s woody ornamentals class will utilize the orchard this fall, as will several other Sheridan College instructors. Students in different classes will study cultivation, fertilization, pruning and pollination.
Current students Cheyenne Hunter and Lexi Pierce are working at the orchard as part of their jobs as research assistants this summer. They inoculated some apple trees with mycorrhizae — a fungus that ideally helps grow the roots of certain plants — and are comparing the growth over time in trees that were inoculated with ones that weren’t.
Pierce took Erickson’s research class this spring and that carried over into her work this summer. The classes in her first year helped Pierce develop a deeper understanding about her fields of interest.
“There’s a wide variety of things you can look at when you come out here,” Pierce said. “It really covers anything you could possibly want.”
Hunter agreed and said she has thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on experience.
“A lot of the stuff that we do really ties in with our majors,” Hunter said. “It kind of gives us an outlet for what we want to do.”
Horticulture and sports turf management intern Erik Sickel is in charge of making sure the orchard is maintained and operates smoothly. He helped establish the plots and has done most of the landscaping for the rows of plants.
Sickel recently moved back to Sheridan from Oregon. He said the program matched his interests and expressed his excitement to help future generations of students. Sickel will also help construct an eventual outdoor classroom in the orchard, which will be the first of its kind on the campus and make for a more hands-on learning experience.
Erickson is most looking forward to the variety of produce that will soon sprout from the orchard. She is also excited about eventually offering it at local farmers markets because of the relatively limited supply of fresh fruit.
“Part of the goal is to demonstrate to the community that fruits are a viable crop for our area and that there’s a market for the fruit that we grow,” Erickson said.
The most challenging part will be growing the plants in the heavy clay soil. Erickson also noted the constant challenge of protecting the plants from insects and birds. A few final touches still have to be completed as well — stakes to support the trees during winter need to be added, as does an irrigation line.
The field will not resemble a full orchard for some time, but the fruits of its labor should eventually assist students, instructors and community members alike.