By Ed Brennen
Alan Aulson opened the trailer gate and stepped aside. The first sheep took a few cautious steps down the ramp and then paused to behold the bounty: an emerald green hillside of lush vegetation, longer than a football field, growing 3 feet tall.
As the sheep ventured into the thicket and began to nosh, the stampede was on. More than 100 of her friends came charging down the trailer ramp like kids storming the gates at Disneyland.
For the next three days, the half acre of wild grass and weeds along the VFW Highway, behind the Costello Athletic Center and Pinanski parking lot on North Campus, was theirs for the grazing – the biggest all-you-can-eat salad bar on campus.
Welcome to “Ewe” Mass Lowell.
Seeking safe and cost-effective ways to maintain tough-to-manage areas on campus, the university called on Aulson’s company, Goats-To-Go out of Georgetown, Mass., for a trial run.
While contractors previously hired by Facilities Management had to contend with angry bees, poison ivy and gopher holes as they weed-whacked the steep slope in the summer heat, the herd of 120 sheep feasted round-the-clock (inside temporary fencing) to do the job in less time – and at half the cost.
“Increased sustainability is always a priority for campus operations,” says Director of Facilities Operations and Services T.J. McCarthy, who worked with Assoc. Vice Chancellor of Facilities Management Thomas Dreyer on planning the project. “Using sheep and goats to keep the grass short along this stretch of land is cheaper for the university and safer for our workers.”
The sheep, which were brought back the following week to “mow” along Pawtucket Street on South Campus, are just the latest innovative technique introduced by Grounds Operations Manager Erik Shaw to maintain the university’s 150 acres of land.
Since joining UML’s Grounds Department in February 2018, Shaw has worked on multiple fronts to make campus groundskeeping more sustainable and efficient. From increasing the use of organic fertilizers and compost on lawns, to improving irrigation and purchasing the university’s first battery-electric lawn mower, his efforts have helped make UML one of the highest-rated campuses for sustainability in the country.
“We’re trying to get a little more sustainable with everything we do,” says Shaw, who came to UML from Babson College, where he held a similar role for over six years. “Whether it’s mowing, tree planting or flowers, we take whatever we currently do and try to improve upon it.”
Shaw got his start in landscaping and turf maintenance by working at golf courses around New England – “the complete other end of the grass-maintenance scale from goats,” he says.
“I came from the commercial world, where we used the cheapest resources to get the best result, regardless of the environment,” says Shaw, who grew weary of pumping pesticides to make picture-perfect golf courses. “It didn’t make me feel good doing that all the time.”
At UMass Lowell, Shaw has been encouraged to research landscaping solutions that keep the campus looking good, but that are also affordable and environmentally friendly.
For lawn care, Shaw is weaning the university off of quick-release synthetic fertilizers that leach into the groundwater. He’s created a campus standard that every fertilizer that’s used be at least 50 percent slow-release, which will also reduce the applications required each year.
“We’ll do two applications of synthetic fertilizer in the spring with weed control, and then do an organic application in the summer and another one in the fall,” says Shaw, who manages a team of eight groundskeepers over the three campuses.
To help the soil better absorb water and nutrients, Shaw has begun an aerating program that covers four to five acres of lawn each year.
“These lawns take a beating with all that foot traffic that compacts the soil,” says Shaw, whose team also uses about 60 tons of compost on lawns each year. Some of that compost, which is provided by Casella Organics, comes from dining hall food scraps.
About 50 percent of the campus irrigation system has been retrofitted with “smart controls” that allow for instant shut-off when it rains, and Shaw hopes to have the entire system converted by the end of next year.
“If I’m sitting at the dinner table and I hear a thunderstorm outside, I can shut off half the irrigation water with one flick of the cell phone,” he says. “Having that control of water when you want is a big thing.”
Shaw is also hoping to replace the university’s fleet of 15 gas-powered lawn mowers with electric models that are quieter and can mulch the nutrient-rich clippings back into the soil. While commercial-grade battery-electric mowers are more expensive, he was able to purchase a $25,000 “Mean Green Mower” this spring thanks to an $8,000 grant he received from the university’s Sustainability Encouragement & Enrichment Development (S.E.E.D.) Fund.
“Our crew member who uses it has been able to mow his section in half the time,” Shaw says of the electric mower, which has a small canopy with solar panels to shade the driver while providing extra battery life.
In the flower beds around campus, meanwhile, Shaw is introducing more perennials that don’t require as much water and maintenance.
“We’re looking to develop some things that help us more long term,” says Shaw, whose efforts have already helped boost the university’s STARS Gold rating.
In its 2016 assessment by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), UML got zero points (out of a possible four) for landscape management and biodiversity. In this year’s assessment, the university got three points – one for landscape management and two for biodiversity.
“Erik is doing phenomenal work and has been a great ally for the Office of Sustainability,” says Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony.
As he watched the hair sheep (a variety that looks like goats) dine on the tall grass on North Campus, Shaw said he appreciates having someone like O’Mahony who will share resources and vet ideas.
“We talk about not just what’s good for facilities, but what’s good for the campus and community as a whole,” Shaw said.
Judging by the faculty and staff who flocked from their offices to snap photos of the sheep, not to mention the drivers that slowed along the VFH Highway to do double-takes, this was one initiative that was good for everyone.