A greenhouse to call their own

Sunlights peeps in through the new West Ridge Greenhouse rooms on Nov. 18, 2011. Fernanda Chamorro/Sun Star

Rebecca Lawhorne/Sun Star Reporter
Nov. 22, 2011

Following the sound of muffled machinery through a plastic-wrapped doorway, there is a freshly painted room lit by groups of long bright lights. To the right, an orderly line of seven teal-colored machines, which resemble heavy-duty refrigerators, occupy the empty space.

Those machines are growth chambers for horticulture research at UAF, and that room is the bottom floor of the newly-constructed greenhouse attached to the south side of the Arctic Health Research Building on West Ridge.

The 4,500-square-foot, state-of-the-art greenhouse replaces the West Ridge greenhouse. The previous greenhouse was removed earlier this year to make room for the construction of the new Life Sciences building.

The new facility is a major upgrade, according to Carol Lewis, the dean of the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences (SNRAS) and director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (AFES).

“This is the most state-of-the-art facility in the state,” Lewis said.

The West Ridge greenhouse, built in the 1960s, didn’t provide the up-to-date experience for students looking at careers in the current greenhouse industry, Lewis said. 

“The old greenhouse couldn’t be automated or controlled in any way, or even lit or heated on the bottom level. It was very minimal,” Lewis said.

The upper level will be fully ready for use by December. The level is equipped with 1,100 square feet of classroom space, a laboratory, two offices, a clean room, storage and an area for handling plant materials, fertilizers and potting media. It also features energy curtains that control the temperature and sunlight. The technology also has controls to program the temperature, lights and humidity.

The unfinished lower level provides 900 square feet for the growth chambers, and sections divided into 750 square feet each, according to a recent press release by the SNRAS/AFES information office.

The greenhouse was budgeted for $5.3 million dollars, and with $1.8 million leftover, the lower level will need to be ventilated and automated. The only catch, according to Lewis, is that the department “will have to bid on another contract to complete it.” This will cause the construction to extend into next year.

Some students expressed frustration with enduring such a long wait for the greenhouse’s completion. For the past 8 months, they had to make do with no greenhouse to conduct research in.

Jackson Drew, 20, a biology and chemistry student, was a student worker in the West Ridge greenhouse since June 2010, until it’s demolition this spring. He then worked up until this fall as the only student worker at  the Georgeson Botanical Garden, a project of the SNRAS department. Four, full-time employees maintain the garden year round.

The Institute of Arctic Biology greenhouse also assisted during the difficult  transition, but since much of it’s space was dedicated to other projects, it could only offer much room to store research plants.

“They didn’t have enough space for us,” Drew said. Research plants were scattered and stored all over campus during construction. Recently, the plants began the journey into the new greenhouse. In the new classroom, foliage in large pots stretches to the ceiling and lines the sides of the room.

Potential greenhouse users are also concerned about the size. Although the square footage is larger, Drew worries that the actual growing space seems to be much smaller than in the original greenhouse, he said. Drew hopes they will still have room for some of the same projects, he said. Typically, during the summer, the greenhouse grows produce to sell in order to raise revenue. The less space for potential produce, the less money raised.

Although it will be slightly smaller than the West Ridge greenhouse at first, Lewis claims what it lacks in size, it makes up for in technological advancement. Lewis said that since the SNRAS focuses on research, they wanted to build a research greenhouse.

“Overall, it’s a much better teaching opportunity for students,”Lewis said. Drew agrees that the new machinery, specifically the new soil-mixing machine, is “a pretty neat improvement,” and will save researchers time and energy.

With all the new technology, future projects will include looking at plant-light interaction and refining current research with LED lights.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new greenhouse will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 22 at 4 p.m., and it will be open to the public. Speakers include UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers, Sen. Joe Thomas, businessman Bernie Karl, and Jim Mitchell of Ghemm Co, who helped fund the project. All the speakers worked with the SNRAS department toward the completion of the greenhouse.

“I have a soft spot for greenhouses,” Lewis said, “and we are very proud and excited about this one.”

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