By Ed Brennen
Lydia Sisson looks across the fresh blanket of soil inside the university’s new 1,800-square-foot Urban Agriculture Greenhouse on East Campus and imagines the possibilities. Rows and rows of spinach, kale, arugula and cilantro. Hearty shoots of ginger and turmeric. Countless tomato, pepper and snap pea seedlings.
But Sisson, a UMass Lowell alum and founding co-director of Lowell-based urban farming nonprofit Mill City Grows, also sees something more: a testing ground where university researchers and students, along with members of the community, can develop new and efficient ways to use water and energy to grow sustainable crops year-round.
“This is a space where we can think about innovation in urban agriculture,” says Sisson, whose organization is partnering with the Office of Sustainability to help run the new greenhouse, which was constructed this summer behind Donahue Hall.
The 30-by-60-foot polycarbonate structure replaces a smaller plastic greenhouse and community garden that opened in 2012. As part of the new greenhouse project, the community garden has moved to a university-owned parcel of land on Dane Street, near University Crossing. The new community garden, also run in partnership with Mill City Grows, features a half-dozen raised beds available to students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the Acre neighborhood.
Associate Director of Sustainability Ruairi O'Mahony helped secure $145,000 in grants from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources to fund the “demonstration sustainability site.” He says the funding gets the infrastructure in place for hands-on research by faculty experts.
“We’re trying to identify issues in urban agriculture and use our academic expertise to find solutions in a real-world setting,” says O’Mahony, who envisions potential National Science Foundation grants generated from work done at the greenhouse.
Mill City Grows will manage the agricultural production inside the greenhouse (and on an adjacent outdoor garden space beginning next summer). Twenty percent of the produce grown will be donated to nonprofit organizations in the city – including the student-run Navigators Food Pantry. Mill City Grows, which runs two other urban farms in Lowell, will sell the remainder of the produce back to the community.
“We’ve never had a greenhouse like this, so we’re thrilled to be able to grow year-round,” says Sisson, who earned her master’s degree in economic and social development of regions from UML in 2012.
According to O’Mahony, the first year will be spent studying how to maximize the greenhouse’s production by using as little energy and water as possible. The greenhouse will initially be heated by passive solar energy (direct sunlight), although solar panels could be added to the site later to power heating mats or germination boxes.
“We want to figure out how to power this completely off the grid,” says O’Mahony, who is seeking additional grant funding for future stages of the project.
This winter will be spent determining which crops grow most efficiently in colder weather. For instance, instead of heating the greenhouse to 70 degrees in February to grow avocados, O’Mahony says they plan to find region-specific crops like potatoes and carrots that could grow at 40 degrees, thereby reducing the energy load.
“We’ve got to figure out how load requirements relate to produce that will be grown in there,” says O’Mahony, who will be working with a pair of energy engineering faculty members – Prof. Christopher Niezrecki and Asst. Prof. Juan Pablo Trelles – and their students on these efforts.
To maximize water efficiency, the greenhouse collects rooftop rainfall in a 1,300-gallon subterranean tank connected to its downspouts. The stored water will be used to irrigate the indoor crops. Plans also call for a rain garden to be planted on the north side of the greenhouse (facing the Merrimack River) to filter any runoff before it reaches the river.
The garden soil is also sustainable; free compost is delivered by Casella Waste Systems, the university’s solid waste contractor. It’s possible that the greenhouse vegetables will be growing in compost generated, in part, from the university’s dining facilities.
O’Mahony notes that several of the university’s nutritional science classes that previously visited a Mill City Grows farm in Dracut “now can cross the bridge and see how it’s applicable on their own campus.” That type of academic connection, along with the ability to develop locally produced food, means the new greenhouse will help boost the university’s already-gold STARS sustainability rating.
“Once we get the greenhouse up and running and show people that it’s feasible and successful, that will open a lot more doors for us,” says O’Mahony, who adds that “you can’t put a dollar value on what Mill City Grows brings to the table” as a partner.
“Our campus is the city, and I don’t think we could have a better partner in trying to solve the urban food issues that are so important to its residents,” says O’Mahony, who notes that access to healthy food in growing cities is quickly becoming a global issue. “If we can help solve this one major issue, this project can pay for itself a million times over.”