Donation from alumnus Brian Rist funds continuation of school greenhouse and produce collaboration

Joanne Yestramski,Brian Rist, John Lebeaux and Ruairi O’Mahony at in front of the Rist Urban Agriculture Farm Image by Jon Winkler/Lowell Sun
Joanne Yestramski, left, Brian Rist, John Lebeaux and Ruairi O’Mahony at the unveiling of the Rist Urban Agriculture Farm.

Lowell Sun
By Jon Winkler

LOWELL — Continuing its celebration highlighting 125 years of existence, UMass Lowell honored its sustainability amenities on Friday morning by introducing an expanded program funded by a former student.

Brian Rist, a member of the college’s class of 1977, donated $5 million with his wife Kim to the school last year with about $1 million dedicated to the university’s sustainability efforts. The founder and CEO of Florida-based Storm Smart, America’s largest manufacturer and installer of hurricane protection systems, offered the largest singular gift in UMass Lowell history and was recognized for his charity with the establishment of the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy.

According to Ruairi O’Mahony, UMass Lowell’s director of sustainability, the institute is meant to make the campus in general more environmentally friendly along with provide students with opportunities for research and teachings. One element of the institute is the Rist Urban Agriculture Greenhouse and Farm, located on the East Campus of the school and representative as a collaboration with the local food access nonprofit Mill City Grows.

“We’re fortunate that the Department of Agricultural Resources gave us a number of grants to build this site and develop the partnership to see how both organizations can support each other with the overall goal of increasing food access and sustainability in Lowell,” O’Mahony said. “We’re about to enter into our third season growing here and it’s been phenomenally successful and has really sparked an interest on campus from both current students and alumni.”

The collaboration between the college and Mill City Grows has been going on for about three years as a means to educate campus members and local residents on the benefits of growing sustainable crops year-round in new, more efficient ways. Both Mill City Grows and the college’s Sustainability Department oversee operations at the greenhouse and the small section of open planting area next to it, with 20% of the produce grown being donated to other local nonprofits and the remaining amount of grown produce being sold by Mill City.

“Every time I come back here and see how the city and university has changed over the years and how much nicer it is today than years ago it was when I was here, I fall back in love with it,” Rist said. “This university did so many things to help me in my career and I’ve been a very, very lucky person. So why wouldn’t I give back and try to help the university that got me started?”

O’Mahony said that Rist’s investment in the school is going beyond the continuous support of the greenhouse. He added that the funding will go to all of the school’s sustainability efforts, though no other specific projects supported by the funds have been announced yet. UMass Lowell has made plenty of efforts to make the college and community more sustainable, including completing the largest accelerated energy program in the state last April. It’s efforts like that and the use of the greenhouse that Rist found so interesting.

“First of all, you’re taking a place of land that was once a junkyard and then you’re producing foods and you’re creating jobs and you’re feeding people,” he said. “So you took something that was a waste and making food out of it to feed people who may not be able to feed themselves in other ways. We have done a lot of not-so-good things to our earth, so anybody and everybody that’s involved in trying to make our earth a better place, I will do everything I can to support that.”