From Farm to Dining Hall

How a new solar greenhouse project will help benefit locally sourced food for Appalachian State University

By Logan Parks, DeLaney Flatford and Pili Swanson


For App State’s Teaching and Research Farm, weather patterns can pose a number of problems for food production. The departments of Sustainable Technology and the Built Environment and Sustainable Development are working together to find a solution.

Since last fall, the SD and STBE departments, with support from the Appalachian State Renewable Energy Initiative, Food Services and Office of Sustainability, have been developing plans to construct a solar greenhouse for the Teaching and Research Farm, located in Ashe County. Once completed, the solar greenhouse is expected to significantly increase opportunities for food production and education.

“As we have a change in climate and erratic weather patterns, it makes it harder and harder for farmers,” Chip Hope, Teaching and Research Farm Director, said. “So, being able to have some controlled environment areas like this new solar greenhouse to grow some food in, I think, will help us to be able to provide food on a more year-round basis.”

The project was conceived by faculty members within the STBE and SD departments to support the SD department’s partnership with Food Services, which was established in January 2018. The partnership works to provide more locally sourced food to the university.

The two departments then presented their plans for the solar greenhouse to ASUREI in November of last year and delivered a full proposal for the project in January. ASUREI, which funds a variety of sustainability initiatives in the area, agreed to provide funding for the solar greenhouse after viewing the proposal.

Jeremy Ferrell, Sustainable Technology Program Director, is one of a few faculty members who help in managing the project. Ferrell met with Hope to discuss the need for an area to plant seeds so that they could germinate and grow, then relocate the plants to an outdoor environment after the frost-free season, which typically starts around May in the High Country.

“The greenhouse will allow for an earlier start to the season,” Ferrell said. “I think it will make a difference in terms of what can be grown at what time of the year, and ideally, provide food when the majority of students are here.”

Aside from agricultural benefits, Ferrell explained that the solar greenhouse will also provide several technological benefits.

“It’ll be a really excellent way to showcase some technology that may be a little risky for other farmers,” Ferrell said. Financially, farmers may not have the means to install a state-of-the-art solar greenhouse to help get a head start on the season, but App State is able to absorb those costs in order to research the potential benefits of incorporating solar technology in agriculture.

Compared to traditional greenhouses, the solar greenhouse will provide increased crop production, reduced operational costs, energy savings of up to 90 percent and greater insulation levels, which are essential in stabilizing temperatures and maintaining the greenhouse effect. The solar greenhouse will also provide a long-term location for teaching and research.

Of the many innovative technologies planned to be included in the greenhouse, Ferrell described the “ground to air heat transfer system.” This technology uses a system of piping underneath the greenhouse to transfer hot air into the soil and replace it with cooler air in order to efficiently maintain temperature.

Though the project is still in its early stages, Hope is looking forward to the opportunities that come with greenhouse farming. Before working as the farm director at App State, he spent much of his career using greenhouses in his farming.

“First of all, it’ll allow us to start our own plants,” Hope said. Currently, the farm purchases plants and starts growing them, but the solar greenhouse will allow them to cut those costs.

“I love growing in greenhouses. It’s something I do well and love,” Hope said.

Sarah Harrison, who interns at the Teaching and Research Farm, also expressed excitement for the greenhouse.

“It’s going to improve our production rates substantially,” Harrison said. “It’s a super important aspect to farming up in the High Country.”

After finalizing the vendor contract with Ceres Greenhouse Solutions, the company providing the designs and materials for the project, the STBE and SD departments will move forward with selecting a contractor and beginning construction. A timeline is yet to be determined.

SOURCES

Chip Hope, Farm Director. Interviewed at the SD Teaching and Research Farm on Wednesday, April 24.

Jeremy Ferrell, Sustainable Technology Program Director. Interviewed in his office on Thursday, April 25.

Sarah Harrison, Intern at Teaching and Research Farm. Interviewed at the farm on Wednesday, April 24.