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Integrating High Tunnel Crop Production & Renewable Energy Systems

Principal Investigators: Philip Ackerman-Leist, Lucas Brown, Kenneth Mulder
Funding: $15,000 and additional financial support

In August 2009, Green Mountain College proposed a project to the Windham Foundation that spoke to the collaborative interdisciplinary strengths of the college and its environmental mission and to the needs of regional farmers for enhanced understanding of the possibilities for integrating renewable energy technologies into season extension systems. Upon receiving confirmation of the funding from the Windham Foundation and additional support from the Yavanna Foundation, GMC embarked upon an unusual collaborative enterprise. Faculty and students from two of the college’s high growth academic programs, Sustainable Agriculture & Food Production and Renewable Energy & Ecological Design (REED), began examining existing research on a) high tunnels, b) solar thermal heating systems, and c) root-zone heating of crops. Following this research, faculty and students visited and interviewed farmers in the region in order to gain their practical on-farm experiences and reflections on the successes and challenges not only of each individual system but also of the potential for integrating the three systems.

After determining an optimal design for the integration of high tunnel technology, solar thermal systems, and root-zone heating, GMC faculty, staff, and students began construction of two high tunnels, one with root-zone heating supplied with “solar hot water” and a backup propane system and the other with no supplemental heating. Construction of these high tunnel systems was completed in October 2010, followed by the first seeding in what will be three years of documented and disseminated research comparing the production, efficiency, costs, and net profits of both cool season and warm season crops in each high tunnel, as well as a final assessment of design and structural considerations. Information on the design, construction, and cropping considerations for the project has already been disseminated through constant student involvement in the process, numerous tours, and several conference presentations. The College website has also featured the project prominently, and a VPR story on the project highlighted not only the system design but also the College’s recent award as the #1 environmental college in the country by Sierra magazine. The objectives of this project are as follows:

  • To determine the effectiveness of integrating an emergent renewable energy system, solar thermal root-zone heating, into commonly-utilized season extension structures in the Northeast

  • To provide critical information that assists Vermont farmers in creating diverse and secure year-round food system and integrating renewable energy systems into agricultural production

  • To enhance the GMC farm’s research capacity and its educational outreach activities

The Windham Foundation grant, supported by other additional private funding sources, has provided one of the most visible and impressive aspects of the college’s commitment to research, education, and outreach in the realm of appropriate technologies for farms in Vermont. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the project has been the dynamic interplay between sustainable agriculture and eco-design, with the clear acknowledgment that these worlds should be interacting with more frequency and intensity in order to address our food and energy needs and questions.

Download report here (PDF)

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