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October 27, 2013

Greenhouses at Frostburg State offer sustainable living lessons

FROSTBURG — Reaching the end of its first full year of operation, the Frostburg State University greenhouse complex known as Frostburg Grows continues to educate students and visitors on sustainable living as well as generating a high volume of produce and native tree seedlings.

Situated on a 5-acre tract of reclaimed mineland along state Route 36 south of the FSU campus, Frostburg Grows holds three large greenhouse facilities that are maintained through a series of solar panels and rain water capturing systems.

Using greenhouses known as high-tunnels, the facility has been able to extend its growing season. The center is still producing broccoli, beans, bell peppers, raspberries, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce and cabbage.

“If you learn how to do it, a grower can generate another revenue stream and create a sustainable situation,” said Corey Armstrong, project coordinator.

Training, along with data collection and other forms of study, as well as increased local food production are the main goals of the Frostburg Grows project.

Multiple government agencies, along with environmental and nonprofit organizations, joined together to help the vision of establishing a sustainable living greenhouse system in Frostburg happen.

“It’s a partnership. It’s not just Frostburg State,” said Liz Medcalf, public relations officer with FSU.

American Rivers, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington, D.C., received a $300,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The grant money is being used by Western Maryland Resource Conservation and Development and FSU, who are partners on the project. The Appalachian Regional Commission gave an additional $30,000 grant.

Construction of the facility began in the spring of 2012.

“FSU students helped to build it and numerous agencies came together to help us get started,” said Medcalf.

Other groups helping to start Frostburg Grows include the Environmental Protection Agency, University of Maryland Extension, the Maryland Department of Natural Re-sources, Americorps, H.F. Lenz Co., British Petroleum and the Maryland State Highway Ad-ministration.

“The highway adminstration donated old highway signs that had reached the end of their life span,” said Dan Fiscus, project assistant.

The old signs were used for planters, flower beds and to make the center’s water storage tanks.

“We used a circular saw with a metal cutting blade to recycle the signs,” said Fiscus.

Rows of planting beds and the large 6- by 9-foot-tall water storage tanks all bear the highway names, routes and directions that they once applied to motorists.

A feature of the greenhouse facility is the rain water collection process and the solar heated drip irrigation system.

“We are off the grid. We don’t need running water or electricity,” said Armstrong.

Rain water is collected using a series of spouts and gutters as well as a trench system leading to a pond. The water that is collected is heated by using black solar heating panels.

The warm water produced by the system is stored in large tanks. By using solar panels, donated by BP, a battery is charged that powers a pump, which circulates the water along pipes and tubes to the plants.

“We want this to be a training facility. It’s an incubator space for people who are interested,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong said that the system takes up less space than some types of traditional farming and can establish another means to grow food that helps everyone.

The staff at the greenhouse center saves space by planting a vertical growing variety of geronimo tomatoes. Frostburg Grows want to teach growers how to obtain a larger yield of produce per square foot and how to extend the growing season.

“If you utilize the space you have wisely and extend the season, you will have more food and you give farmers another source of revenue,” said Nathan Bennett, site manager.

Bennett said they will be able to plant much earlier than others in the region.

“With the greenhouses, we expect to have tomatoes by Memorial Day,” said Bennett.

The Frostburg Grows center is also collecting data for studies that are being done by growers.

“We are in partnership with Harry Schwartz, a raspberry breeder in Garrett County. He develops different varieties of raspberries and patents them,” said Fiscus.

Fiscus said they are collecting data on how different types of fertilizers, including a new fish bi-product fertilizer, are helping the plants.

Frostburg Grows has plans to expand next year.

“We want to have six additional greenhouses installed and operational next year,” said Armstrong.

Greg Larry can be contacted at glarry@times-news.com

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