Learning conservation, leadership on a South Carolina farm
by Chuck Gordon

After a few hours of orienteering, plant identification, shelter building and much more, a group of seven Wingate students gathered in a meeting room at the far end of the sprawling Southern 8ths Farm to reflect. They had a variety of backgrounds and majors – a couple of athletes, an Army veteran, a pre-pharmacy major, the president and vice president of the Wildlife Club – but they came together on a chilly November day to learn and work together.

For one 30-minute segment earlier in the day, they had split into groups of three and four to build makeshift shelters in the woods, and now they were discussing how the exercise went.

“The first conversation we had was about the spine versus the support,” sophomore Tyauna Bailey said. “Adden (Howard) had one idea about what the spine was supposed to look like, and I had a different one. I said, ‘I think you have the wrong idea.’”

“Which idea did you go with?” asked Nick DeLangie, strategic leader for enrollment management, and one of the organizers of the daylong event.

Students put the finishing touches on a makeshift shelter

Bailey answered, “Mine,” and then chuckled.

Most agreed that Bailey’s idea worked pretty well, with her team building a sizable, comfy shelter out of limbs, sticks and leaves.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to trust your team,” said Howard, a senior.

It is just this type of leadership learning that DeLangie; Chris Harrist, assistant professor of sport sciences; Southern 8ths owner Brad Turley; and Dr. Catherine Wright, executive director of the Collaborative for the Common Good, hope to make a regular thing at the farm in Chesterfield, South Carolina.

Turley bought the 1,350-acre farm in Chesterfield County, S.C., a dozen years ago, after selling his New York-based healthcare-software company. He was drawn to its mix of pastures and woodland and its interesting history. The farm was a major Confederate horse-breeding operation during the Civil War – so much so that General Sherman made sure to target it during his march south. “He made a point to come to Chesterfield, South Carolina, and wreck this horse farm,” DeLangie says.

A couple of years ago, Turley contacted a retired Wingate history professor, thinking he might be interested in the tales the land could tell. Turley eventually got connected to Wingate President Dr. Rhett Brown, and thus began a partnership that led to last semester’s training session.

The property served as a farm for decades, but Turley is determined to return as much of the land to its natural state as possible. As part of his conservation efforts, he hopes to bring a variety of groups to Southern 8ths to learn more about the land and the creatures and plants that inhabit it.

He’s starting with Wingate students, hoping to bring more Wingate groups – veterans, student-government office-holders, athletics teams, even trustees – to the farm for retreats. It’s also a natural spot for study purposes.

“You can take business majors out here and talk about how to use the woodworking facilities to make money,” DeLangie says. “You can obviously take biology students out here and they can work with the natural areas. You can take just about any type of students and cater the experience toward their studies, while using the natural environment.”

Students looking at maps

The first group of students are part guinea pigs, part trainees. Now that they’ve spent time learning their way around the farm, finding arrowheads in the fields, examining headstones in the 150-year-old graveyard and seeing the former pastures that are being converted back to woodlands, they can bring other groups – such as inner-city kids – to the property for retreats of their own.

“The real hope is to take groups of students out here on a regular basis to get them experience in nature and natural environments while developing character and leadership and those sorts of things,” DeLangie says. “Brad wants a big connection to Wingate, so the obvious population there is the Wingate students – to use this place as a model to train students so they can become leaders in their communities, to become the type of people who want to preserve the natural environment the way Brad’s doing.”

At the end of their day together last fall, Turley thanked the students for being one of the first groups to explore and learn at Southern 8ths. Before the group left to board the bus for the 40-minute ride back to Wingate, Turley told them of other benefits of spending time learning about the land: It creates a shared experience and levels the playing field.

“Nature delimits people,” he said. “We all have our own limits. We have our own identification of who we are, what we are. I’m a jock, I’m a software guy, I’m a geek. But as soon as you get out here, you’re not a professor anymore, you’re not a wildlife guy anymore, you’re not a jock anymore. You’re all in it together.”

All striving together for the common good.

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