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High tunnel greenhouse: Solution for short growing season

Construction has started on a solar high tunnel greenhouse, which will extend the growing season long enough for classrooms to be involved with Concordia’s garden project, according to Ken Foster, the chair of President William Craft’s sustainability council.

“The main purpose [of the tunnel] is to provide educational opportunities for students,” Foster said. “There is an art professor who wants to have a group of students design an aesthetically pleasing plan around the garden.”

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The high tunnel greenhouse. Photo by Maddie Malat

Foster said education classes could design teaching plans around the tunnel and garden, and marketing or advertising students could make a plan to market the project to the community.

“That is all in addition to the actual growing of the vegetables,” Foster said.

The high tunnel will be powered mostly by solar energy, but some natural gas will also be used. The tunnel will extend the growing season by three months.

Samantha Hill, sustainability coordinator, has been working on this project since she started working at Concordia this summer.

“A high tunnel by itself will only extend [the growing season] to about April to October, whereas if it is a solar heated it would be from February to November,” Hill said.

The solar energy will heat the soil in order to extend the growing season, said Jerry Raguse, a groundskeeper. Raguse was leading the construction project while Nick Rasmussen, project leader, was on medical leave.

“The solar panels gather the sun’s energy and heat air inside of them,” Raguse said. “This air is circulated with a fan through a series of ductwork that is buried about 18 inches deep in the sand bed underneath the high tunnel.”

Maddie Hyde, member of the garden committee, has been a part of the research and implementation of the project.

“[The high tunnel] is getting at the very cutting edge of urban farming technology,” Hyde said. “The project was inspired by a nearby farmer who had one.”

Raguse said that in order to prevent the ground inside the high tunnel from freezing, additional heating will be needed in the early spring and late fall.

“There is only so much heat that will radiate off the ground, and with a plastic-covered greenhouse, it is not enough to keep the air temperature warm enough to prevent plants from freezing,” Raguse said. Natural gas will be used to heat the air inside the high tunnel.

The high tunnel will be built in a Gothic style, Foster said. This means instead of the tunnel being a half circle shape, it will look more like a pentagon. The outside will be completely covered by plastic. Nearby, a head house will store a water tank, heater and tools.

The tunnel will be located right next to the garden near Concordia’s soccer fields, Foster said.

Facilities Management began construction on the high tunnel Aug. 24, according to Raguse, and it is expected to be completed in November. The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a company that works with rural communities to bring in renewable energy, is installing the solar panels. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held once it is built,, according to Foster.

Funding for the project came partially from a grant given to Concordia by a Minnesota foundation, according to Hill. Hill chose not to name the foundation that gave the grant. Additional funds came from

Student Government Association and the Cobbers Give, a site that allows organizations to publicize their fundraisers, Hill said.

Erica Bjelland, a sustainability representative, proposed the high tunnel project to SGA to allocate funds from them, according to Hyde.

The idea for the high tunnel project began with students, according to Hill.

“The students that had been involved in [the garden] had expressed interest in having a high tunnel,” Hill said.

For the last five years, Concordia has had a garden plot that has been supervised by two student interns in the summer, according to Foster. The garden project was led by those students, but now a garden committee is in charge of it.

“We had to ask ourselves, how can [the garden committee] increase the benefit of this garden?” Hyde said. “The solution was the high tunnel.”

Gretchen Harvey, Shane Sessions and Nathaniel Cook, the original founders of the garden, began research on a high tunnel. After reviewing their work, Hyde chose to continue research for the high tunnel project as part of her 2013 garden internship.

The purpose of researching the high tunnel was to find a solution that extends the season so that classes could participate in the garden project. Her research focused on how a high tunnel could be integrated with classrooms.

There will be a part-time garden manager hired in addition to the interns, Foster said. They will staff the high tunnel year round. Prior to each growing season, the garden manager and a committee will decide what the plan for the high tunnel is for the following year.

“Before each growing season, a committee of faculty, staff, students and interested people will work with the garden manager to determine the plan for the next year,” Foster said. “What do you want to grow, and then what do you want to do with it?”

In the past, much of the food grown in the garden has been donated to Churches United or Dorothy Day, Hyde said.

“So what this is…is a garden expansion project,” Foster said. “The idea is to expand the garden, and instead of just expanding it with another outdoor plot, use a high tunnel so that the growing season can be extended.”

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