ORONO, Maine — Snowflakes floated toward the frozen ground while University of Maine students snipped salad greens inside a campus greenhouse where the temperature approached a balmy 50 degrees. The greens were available to salad bar customers the next day at Maine Marketplace in Memorial Union.
Sonja Birthisel, a graduate student in the sustainable agriculture program, said the red, blue and green leafy mix was tasty and mild. Megan Berthiaune, a senior from Eddington, Maine, majoring in nutrition, described the Elegance Greens Mix as
fresh and appealing.
It would have been difficult for the greens to be any fresher or local; they traveled a mere half-mile from the greenhouse to the salad bar.
The Elegance Greens Mix, which includes Pac Choi, red mustard, mizuna and leaf broccoli, was the first harvest of the UMaine Greens Project, supervised by Eric Gallandt, associate professor of weed ecology and chairman of the department of plant,
soil and environmental sciences.
Gallandt said the inspiration to start a student greenhouse project came from visiting Michigan State University last year. UMaine’s project, which involves growing greens for the UMaine dining commons, builds on the university’s Sustainable
UMaine Greens, headquartered in a greenhouse off Rangeley Road, was funded with $11,500 from UMaine’s Unified Fee.
More than $7,700 was invested in a 26-foot by 96-foot greenhouse, purchased from a farmer in New Hampshire.
Gallandt also purchased a piece of equipment he initially didn’t dream he would need — a snowblower to prevent buildup around the double-layer plastic walls of the greenhouse. (He got it on sale in July.)
Daniel Blanton, a senior majoring in sustainable agriculture from Stow, Mass., one of the 25 students involved in the UMaine Greens Project, helped build the greenhouse.
In September, project participants had a “greenhouse raising”; they gathered at 7 a.m. one calm Friday to pull the two layers of plastic over the metal tubing frame.
Oct. 12, students planted rows of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Nov. 29, about 20 pounds of the tasty greens crop became lunchtime salad bar fare for students and staff.
The idea of growing and eating healthy, local food is logical and appealing to many in the college community, Gallandt said. Frequent themes in agriculture classes include reducing the number of food miles — the distance food travels to reach the
table — and the ability to control and extend the growing environment.
Glenn Taylor, director of Maine Culinary Services and a champion of the UMaine Greens Project, says 15 percent of all food served in campus dining halls is harvested at Maine farms — from meat to beets. That equates to the university spending
$700,000 annually with area businesses.
Taylor said in two years, the goal is to increase the proportion of locally grown food served at the university to 25 percent.
Purchasing vegetables from the UMaine Greens Project won’t displace any other local grower, Taylor said, and will help the project become financially self-sustaining.
Gallandt said it’s also fitting the greenhouse is adjacent to the university’s new composting facility. Compost from the vegetables that feed the students will nourish the greenhouse soil where the greens are grown.
Interested students are invited to join the current motivated group of volunteers participating in the project.
“We’re always looking for more help,” said Rose Presby, a fifth-year biology major from Farmington, Maine. “If you’re looking for local food and you care where it comes from, you should definitely get involved,” she said.
Garth Douston, a junior from Arundel, Maine, said there are many benefits to digging in and taking part.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn about winter production and extending the growing season and keeping plants alive and thriving,” Douston, a sustainable agriculture major, said.
Lincoln, Maine, native Bourcard Nesin had a hand in keeping the greens growing this fall. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sustainable agriculture from UMaine last spring and says he’s pleased that students are contributing to the university’s
reputation as a healthy campus.
In 2011 and 2012, UMaine was one of 16 colleges nationwide named to The Princeton Review’s Green Honor Roll.
In addition to getting hands-on farming skills, growing healthy, local food, and helping the environment, Gallandt said a greenhouse is simply an inviting place to be.
“Last Sunday, it was 32 degrees and the wind was howling,” he said. “Inside the greenhouse, it was 54 degrees and there was 85 percent humidity. You can’t help but get happy in a place like that.”