Research begins in University greenhouse
February 26, 2007 —
Last October, 34 volunteers helped secure the tarp coverings of two greenhouses located between SVSU's campus and North Michigan Avenue. And although both greenhouses have outwardly appeared complete ever since, their interior assembly has been an ongoing project that is just now nearing completion.
Dr. David Swenson and Professor Ed Meisel of SVSU's chemistry department have been working on what they call their tax-free "greenhouse project," funded by the Allen Foundation of Midland, since 2005. However, construction of their plant greenhouse has just been completed and construction of their seafood greenhouse, to feature prawn and tilapia, should be done "after all the permits are signed," Swenson says.
Anyone stepping into greenhouse number one will see first-attempt flats of chives, cauliflower, thyme, coriander, dill, and a whole host of other edible greens precisely aligned in small, plastic containers.
Strategically placed between timed lighting systems and circulating fans, the tiny crops are currently being tested in different types of soils and nutrients. The goal? To find out which plants are most progressive under which environmental circumstances.
The rows of greens sit atop plywood benches and approximately 3,000 gallons of city tap water in repurposed pickle barrels. The water-filled pickle barrels act as heat buffers, absorbing sunlight to help keep the 96 x 20 x 8-foot greenhouse consistently insulated at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Look at this pickle barrel," Swenson said, tipping one of the large, black, plastic barrels slightly. "This would cost $300 to buy commercially, but it only cost Meisel $6 to make. Why can businesses charge people $300 for something that costs $6 to make? Because not many people know how to make it."
Swenson and Meisel hope not only to teach people how to make use of their own pickle barrels, but to teach them how to build their own greenhouses. Their ultimate goal is to help create food independence in the region for minimum energy and financial input.
"Right now we're burning propane just to prove it's expensive," Meisel says. "This greenhouse will eventually be completely independent from propane."
Plans are in store to heat the greenhouse with corn fuel rather than propane during the cold, winter months. SVSU has just granted the project 100 acres of land so that, amongst other crops, corn can be planted and harvested for a truly self-sustaining greenhouse. In fact, nothing the project produces will go to waste; the hot ash leftover after the corn is burned will even be utilized as fertilizer.
SVSU's Dr. David Karpovich and Dr. Chris Schilling will be further assisting with the alternative energy portion of the project and have been key components to its development as well.
Although all aspects of the greenhouse are just beginning to come together, Swenson and Meisel remain confident that their research will take off in the coming months.
"This will work," Swenson says. "The question is, 'How well will it work?'"
Swenson and Meisel have just proven that topsoil does not work well in the greenhouse. They found that it dries up too fast and stays wet too long for the nutrients to be properly absorbed. Store-bought Metro Mix and Pro Mix soils will be used in the greenhouse instead from now on.
And the entire greenhouse may convert to the system of hydroponics soon, which would entail the rows of soil flats being replaced with long, plastic tube structures designed to support plant-life through nutrient liquid. The greens would sit inside sawed-out circular openings on the top of the tubing so that their roots would soak up the fluid nutrients running through the inside. There will be no soil involved with the process at all.
Having already experimented with the system, Swenson says vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers can grow for years with hydroponics.
Several students from both SVSU and MSU Extension have already been involved in the construction of the greenhouse, and Swenson and Meisel are now hoping that students will get involved with actually conducting research in the now Internet-equipped greenhouse. A few students have begun working on scientific experiments already.
"This is first and foremost an educational facility," Meisel said. "See the four-foot aisles? If we had built this greenhouse in order to maximize production, then the aisles wouldn't be this wide. But we built this greenhouse so that students can come in here and conduct research."
Swenson and Meisel believe that the greenhouse will benefit students in each of SVSU's five colleges. They say accounting majors will assess the profit margin, biology and chemistry majors will work with nutrient ratios and fuel emissions, sociology students will study food distribution, and so on.
"Now that's what I call research," Swenson says. "For God's sake, we are the Harvard of Michigan's thumb!"
Anyone interested in getting involved with the greenhouse project in any way should contact Meisel by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call his office phone at (989) 964-2051.