Seed money solicited for greenhouse

Colleen Winters

In the scheme of the University’s $290 million budget request, the $900,000 proposed to pay for the planning of a new greenhouse on the St. Paul campus might not seem like much.
But to faculty members who need adequate greenhouse space and conditions for teaching and research, the amount is a very significant part of the proposed budget.
“What we have right now is a set of greenhouses in a real state of despair,” said Phil Larsen, associate dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences.
Greenhouse research is important because it has definite effects on the state’s economy, Larsen said. “As an example, a plant disease on our wheat and barley crop cost $2 billion in losses since 1993,” he said. The development of genetic resistance, which protects these crops from the disease, was carried out in greenhouses, he said.
The current greenhouses are used by faculty, staff and students of three colleges: the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences; the College of Biological Sciences; and the College of Natural Resources.
The main cluster of greenhouses, located north of Dudley Avenue, is about 35 years old. Another greenhouse, located near the intersection of North Cleveland Avenue and Larpenteur Avenue West, was built in the 1930s.
Known as the “northwest greenhouse,” it was purchased by the University in the 1960s as a temporary structure but is still in use today, said Dann Adair, a University greenhouse manager.
The colleges’ efforts to allocate specific funds toward updating the greenhouses has been going on for five years. Two committees were formed to discuss inadequacies of the greenhouses and requests for new technologies.
If all requests the committees recommended had been granted, a $30 million facility would be in the process of being built, Adair said. Instead, the committees agreed on the most important renovations and hired greenhouse experts who estimated the construction and renovation costs at $17.1 million.
If the proposed budget is accepted by the Legislature in its entirety, the $900,000 will go to the planning and designing of facilities that meet industry standards. The $17.1 million to begin construction is already set aside in the University’s budget proposal for the year 2000.
“The current greenhouses are deteriorating and have to be demolished,” said John Erwin, an associate professor of horticultural science. Erwin, the greenhouse production specialist of Minnesota, said the new greenhouse complex would be built where the large grouping of greenhouses sits north of Dudley Avenue.
One of the major improvements that would be offered by the new complex is environmental control of the space, which would include improvements in temperature and lighting control and water quality. “The environmental control is substandard for research,” Adair said of the current greenhouses.
Ruth Shaw, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior who performs research on the evolutionary genetics of plants, said she needs to be able to detect very subtle changes in her plants. But the widely fluctuating temperatures and poor control of insects makes research difficult, she said. “Insects can come in through various holes in the greenhouse,” she said.
David Ragsdale, an entomology professor, studies insects from other parts of the world that feed on weed stocks. His work in biological control is of great interest to farmers and horticulturists, but Ragsdale said the University greenhouses aren’t adequate for this kind of research.
As a result, he has to rely on the greenhouses at Ohio State University and Montana State University, which have a quarantine system. The University pays for scientists at these other universities to perform the research.
“The new greenhouse would be a space in which exotic organisms could be contained,” Ragsdale said. The facility would feature a double entry system, which would prevent accidental release and entry of organisms, he said.
Space in the greenhouses is also a problem. The demand for hands-on training for students is often accommodated at the expense of research projects because of a lack of room, Ragsdale said.
The new greenhouse complex would be about the same square footage as the old facility, but the efficiency of space use would increase by one-third, Shaw said. The current greenhouses have fixed benches, but the use of rolling benches would allow aisles to be used as research space.
As a research institution, the University should be consistent with industry standards of technology, Adair said. “If you took a horticulture class right now, you would have to take a field trip to see the latest technology,” he said.
The new greenhouse facility would change that, but even if the budget is approved, construction is at least two years away. However, faculty members say it will be worth the wait.
“This will be an extremely valuable development in facilitating plant development research,” Shaw said. “It’s long overdue.”