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Rejuvenating horticulture

By Staff | Sep 16, 2011

One of the four new greenhouses at the horticulture center on the Iowa State University campus sits in the early twilight following a Sept. 3 open house and dedication. The $4.6 million project will advance the horticulture science research and instruction curricula.

AMES – More than 100 people on?Sept. 3 sipped and ate refreshments and toured the new state-of-the-art greenhouses at the Horticulture Teaching and Research Complex at Iowa State University.

The new structures are viewed as a sign that Iowa is returning to its pioneering agrarian roots.

“This facility costs $357 per square foot,” said Dr. Richard Gladon, an associate professor in the horticulture department, while providing a guided tour of the facility.

The $4.6 million complex is dedicated to the research and instruction of primarily growing fruit and vegetables within a state that leads the country in corn, soybeans, egg and livestock production.

Kellie Walters, a sophomore horticulture student from Guttenberg, in northeast Iowa, said she’s not surprised by the university’s horticulture reinvestment. Walters, whose family is experienced in commercial ag production, said she worked in a greenhouse in her hometown, “But it was nothing like this.”

Dr. Richard Gladon, an associate professor of horticulture at Iowa State University, gestures Saturday as he conducts visitors through a tour of the department’s new greenhouses.

She is working on a research project for Gladon, testing the growth rate of poinsettias in soil with varying degrees of perlite and biochar.

The expectation is that the biochar will prove to be a sustainable, renewable product that can adequately replace perlite, which is a volcanic rock that needs to be mined and processed.

“Trends are changing,” Walters said, “and research is needed to be sure we get as much out of our horticulture crops, and still remain sustainable, just like row crops.”

Bill Northey, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, agreed, adding that this should be an encouragement for existing and future horticulture students.

“This tells them that they do have a place here,” Northey said, “even in a corn, bean and hog state. This tells them they do have a future.”

Pete Lawler, greenhouse manager, looks over poinsettia plants that will be sold as a fundraiser by the ISU horticulture students later this year.

In fact, Northey said, “fruit and vegetable production was first in this state.”

The four new greenhouses – two for instruction and two for research – by themselves carried a $4 million price tag. The ISU agronomy department also added onto the project a $600,000 portion for its uses.

The new structures replaced older greenhouses, built in 1913, with dirt floors, said Pete Lawler, the greenhouse manager.

They were heated with steam heat, which was uneven, having pockets within each structure warmer than others in relation to proximity of the pipes.

“But back then, that was state-of-the-art,” Lawler said.

During one of the tours of the greenhouses, the fogging system was switched on to demonstrate how each room’s temperature and humidity is monitored by a central computer system.

The new facility features total environmental controls, he said, under constant computer monitoring regulating temperature, humidity and light intensity.

If he’s away from the structures, he can access the controls remotely with his iPhone and override any system.

“We went from the early 20th century to the 21st century just like that,” Lawler said, snapping his fingers.

Each greenhouse lab has a fogging system that keeps plants comfortable through respiration. each also has three water lines – straight tap water for washing floors, tempered water for watering plants and deionized water, eliminating calcium, for nutritional studies.

The facility can also set up hydroponic gardening work as well.

“Research is needed to be sure we get as much out of our horticulture crops, and still remain sustainable, just like row crops.” —Kellie Walters ISU sophomore

A centralized fertilizing system feeds into the treated water lines.

Researchers and students can vary the fertilizer rates for each research and instructional project, Lawler said.

The facility also has space for the horticulture students to grow club plants they use as fund raisers for trips.

Instructor Gladon told his tour that with the horticulture program is already seeing a modest increase in students. This new facility should be an even bigger draw.

Lawler said the program is seeing increased interest from Illinois students. “It costs as much in Illinois as out-of-state tuition in Iowa,” Lawler said, inferring that the presence of the new structures could be a deal-maker for ISU concerning those students.

Gladon said the future for the program will be to reach out to students in urban centers “to talk about what horticulture is and what can be offered to them as a career choice.

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, Ext. 453 or at kersh@farm-news.com.

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