A competition to highlight food production tradeoffs – the 2014 UST Stewardship Garden

The world needs an agricultural makeover. Currently, agricultural practices take up 40 percent of land area, are responsible for 70 percent of global water withdrawals, and emit 30 percent of all greenhouse gases in our atmosphere (Foley 2010). The amount of land used for agriculture is 60 times higher than land use for all other human activity. At the same time, about one billion people are chronically malnourished (Conway 2010). Moreover, global food demand is predicted to increase by 50% by 2050 as populations grow, economies develop, and diets shift to include more meat and more calories (Tilman et al. 2011). To address these issues simultaneously, we need to develop ways to produce more food with less environmental impact on land that has already been modified by human activity.

One part of the solution can be the development of agriculture in urban environments (Ladner 2011). Converting urban lands from lawns (or even parking lots) to agricultural fields probably doesn’t impact the environment as much as forest or prairie conversion does. Urban agriculture has a lot of other benefits too: it reduces food transportation costs, it can connect people to the process of food production, and it can help build community (Ferris et al. 2012). Urban agriculture projects can also help raise awareness about the challenges facing global agriculture.

Part of the mission of the Stewardship Science team at the University of St. Thomas is to conduct visible research on how to best use urban land for food production in a sustainable way. Our research at the Stewardship Garden on the UST St. Paul campus examines the tradeoff between maximizing vegetable production yield and minimizing environmental impacts. This year, we are conducting a competition to better understand this tradeoff. We’ve asked participants from across the university and the urban agriculture community to specify the growing conditions on our plots. Participants were asked to make simple choices about fertilizer type, fertilizer amount, water management technique, and crop type. “Fertilizer type” choices were either a synthetic 24N-8P-16K blend, or a barley compost produced by Giving Tree Gardens that consists of beer-mash waste from five local breweries, coffee-roast waste from Peace Coffee, organic-landscaping waste, and wood chips. “Fertilizer amount” choices are either “low” (64g N/m2/yr for synthetic, 7.5 cm depth for compost) or “high” (128 gN/m2/yr for synthetic, 15 cm depth for compost). “Water management technique” is either [mulch (3cm wood chips) + no water] or [no mulch + water added to offset evapotransporation]. “Crop type” is either conventional or heirloom varieties of common garden vegetables. We are managing the plots according to the specifications of participants. The Garden has two replicates of each possible combination of the choices for a total of 32 plots. Every plot has lettuce, full tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, peppers, potatoes, and squash. We weigh all of the produce from the plots, and quantify an environmental impact by measuring nutrient run-off from each plot. The winning strategy will be the one that maximizes the yield-to-environmental impact ratio; in other words, vegetable production per amount of nutrient runoff.

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Huertas Intensivas: Learning from a UST Graduate

Huertas 2

Huertas Intensivas – Research plots at the UST Stewardship Garden

One of the best things about doing research at St. Thomas is the relationships that develop between students and professors. Learning about the subject of our research from an expert in the field is invaluable; their experience and knowledge helps more than hours of individual research. The other good aspect of learning this way is being able to have a relationship with your professor and other community leaders outside of an impersonal lecture setting.

Recently, some members of our UST Stewardship Science team were able to have a discussion about the science of urban agriculture with Sam Wortman, a professor in Crop Sciences and Urban Food Production at the University of Illinois. Dr. Wortman graduated with St. Thomas in 2007 with a degree in Biology. Dr. Wortman obtained a position at Illinois after completing a M.S. in Crop Production in 2009 and a Ph.D. in Applied Ecology in 2012 from the University of Nebraska. The Stewardship Science team read a paper on urban farming by Dr. Wortman and his colleague Sarah Lovell published in the Journal of Environmental Quality in 2013. Adam contacted Dr. Wortman to see if he would be willing to talk to the team about it over Skype. Continue reading

Introducing Fall Farmers’ Market!

Farmers Market

We are excited to announce our FALL FARMERS MARKET! From August until October we will be selling our fresh, local, pesticide and herbicide free produce. The Farmers’ Market will take place Fridays from 11:00 – 2:00 at the University of St. Thomas Campus, outside the Anderson Student Center. Taste the fruits of our research!

 

Harvested for Science: What happened to the Canola in the Urban Flower Field?

Canola at the Urban Flower Field

Canola at the Urban Flower Field

During lunch hour last Wednesday at the Urban Flower Field, passers-by and lunch-goers peered curiously from their blue chairs as Hunter, Kristen and Liz gave the site a small make-over. We carefully trimmed away Canola from tall stalks of sunflowers and delicate perennials.  The main goal of this undertaking was to assess the biomass of one of our 8 wildflower species, but there is so much more to the story!

Our project is aimed at evaluating the value of biodiversity (the variety of life within a particular area) in an urban phytoremediation research experiment. Understanding the ecological impacts of biodiversity is notoriously difficult to quantify and has been a major research objective for decades. Biodiversity is important for humans and the environment because it can boost ecosystem productivity and provide natural services such as water purification and soil stabilization. Global biodiversity, however, is facing severe threats. Human activity, such as habitat destruction, has caused a 1,000-fold increase in species extinction rate.

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Growing Science: a new University of St. Thomas project on urban agriculture

Global demand for food is rapidly rising because of increasing population and a general shift to higher calorie, meat-rich diets. At the same time, the impacts of agriculture on the environment, including nutrient pollution and agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, are already at unsustainable levels. These conflicting challenges mean there are no easy solutions. We could meet growing food demand by increasing production on existing agricultural land, but this might require more fertilizer and water that will in turn affect the environment. Alternatively, we could put more land into  production, but land conversion (such as forest clearing) can lead to the loss of plant and animal species and increase carbon loss to the atmosphere. This two-pronged problem – an ever-increasing food demand coupled with agriculture’s growing impact on the environment – is one of humanity’s great challenges. These issues helped inspire our new urban agriculture research project called Growing Science.

Entrance to the Growing Science site at the West 7th Community Center

Entrance to the Growing Science site at the West 7th Community Center

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Stewardship Science meets Gardening Matters for conversation, research planning

Urban agriculture is a relatively new concept in the United States, but it’s already making a big impact. In the Twin Cities alone, there are over 450 community gardens providing produce for local charities and community members. Urban gardens can have many benefits, such as increasing the availability offresh food for urban residents and reducing the money and energy needed to transport produce from fields to end-users.

The Stewardship Garden at the University of St. Thomas is an example of a community garden that provides fresh food to a local food shelf (Neighbors Inc.) while providing an opportunity for St. Thomas students to perform agricultural research. This year students are using the garden to compare different growing variables (water use, heirloom vs. conventional, and fertilizer vs. compost) to see what techniques produce the highest yield while maintaining the lowest environmental impact. Another part of the Stewardship Garden’s mission is making connections with the community. Students work to inform neighbors and other visitors about the importance of urban agriculture and sustainability, as well as the science and service involved. More connections are being made with the urban agriculture community with the help of a nonprofit called Gardening Matters, a major organizer of garden-related activities in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Stewardship Science team recently visited with Mallory Morken, a staff member of Gardening Matters, to find out more about their activities.

Haley Zimmerman at the UST Stewardship Garden. July 2014

Author Haley Zimmerman at the UST Stewardship Garden. July 2014

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Learning about a just, local food system from Community Table Co-op and Project Sweetie Pie

The central scientific goal of UST Stewardship Science projects such as Growing Science and The Stewardship Garden is to determine best practices for maximizing vegetable yields and minimizing negative environmental impacts. This knowledge will be applied to the broader goal of establishing a profitable, environmentally friendly, and sustainable local food system that will provide the community with easy access to affordable produce. This is important because many individuals in the Twin Cities live in neighborhoods where access to nutritious foods is limited.  While many of these neighborhoods are located near a small “corner store”, these stores generally tend to have few healthy options such as fruits and vegetables.  Corner stores often lack high-quality, inexpensive produce because owners do not have access to efficient delivery systems. This drives up the price of produce enough to deter many customers from buying it.  If enough customers are unwilling or unable to purchase this expensive produce, the store owner will quickly see that buying and selling produce is not profitable.  Unfortunately, the end result is a severe lack of nutritious foods on store shelves.  In order to address this issue, the UST Stewardship science program partnered with Community Table Co-op to create the Brightside Project, which aims to deliver affordable produce (often locally grown) to corner stores.

To help connect research activities to the community, the UST Stewardship Science team is taking “urban agriculture field trips” each week throughout the summer. In mid-June, the team met with Collie Graddick, Adam Pruitt, and Dede Fuller from Community Table, and Michael Chaney from Project Sweetie Pie to discuss the intricacies of the current local food system.

Back row: Collie Graddick, Kristen Bastug, Liam Coulter, Hunter Gaitan, Jake Anderson, Adam Pruitt, Michael Chaney. Front row: Haley Zimmerman, Dede Fuller, Acadia Stephen, Carly Dent.

Back row: Collie Graddick, Kristen Bastug, Liam Coulter, Hunter Gaitan, Jake Anderson, Adam Pruitt, Michael Chaney. Front row: Haley Zimmerman, Dede Fuller, Acadia Stephen, Carly Dent.

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