Forever Green grads get noticed

Publication date: 
March 20, 2015

Author: Michelle Dobbratz

Forever green: samplingHere at the Grossman Lab, much of our research is focused on understanding soil health in cover cropping, double cropping, and living mulch systems. That makes for a natural partnership with the Forever Green Initiative, a group of Minnesota researchers studying ways to increase the amount of time soil is covered by living green material. If you want to learn more about the research being conducted as part of the Forever Green Initiative, check out this feature by Brian DeVore. Also, take a look at the profiles of Grossman Lab graduate researchers Michelle Dobbratz, Peyton Ginakes, Dan Raskin, and their Forever Green colleagues.

Better composting at the University of Minnesota

Publication date: 
February 27, 2015

Author: Michelle Dobbratz

Worst practice

These bins are located in a building that offers composting, but you’d never know it by this confusing set-up!

Have you ever seen something in your community that bothers you, but you weren’t sure what to do about it? That’s how I feel about the state of the composting system at the University of Minnesota. It really troubles me to watch valuable organic material, like food and compostable utensils, get turned into pollution every day. Although we have made progress in developing our composting system, it’s time to take the next steps so we can not only recycle organic material but also save money in the process.

Since the university started composting in 2007, quite a few people have stepped up to do their part. For example, the University Dining Services captures most organic waste in its jurisdiction, the Bell Museum hosts zero-waste events, and many areas on campus have invested in compostable packaging and single-use items. However, there’s still room to recover an additional 1,200 tons of organic material. In case you have a hard time visualizing 1,200 tons, it’s equivalent to the combined weight of the roughly 16,000 seniors and freshman at the U of M-Twin Cities.  We are missing the opportunity to recover fertile compost for gardeners and producers, and wasting money in the process. It costs the university four times as much to dispose of unsorted waste through incineration than it does to recycle organic material through composting.

Best practice

This is the best practice- all forms of disposal are available, signs are clear and visual, and bins are color coded. We need more of this!

With just a few simple steps, we can recover more of our compost to conserve the environment. From walking around campus, it’s clear that we need more compost bins and better signs where we do have bins. Very few buildings on campus have composting, and those that do often only have it in one place. Signs are confusing, contradictory, and hard to read for the tens of thousands of people on campus every day who are in a hurry. Best practices dictate that every trash point have access to all forms of recycling, that the receptacles are color-coded, and that visual signs are placed to help people sort in a hurry.

Similarly, we need to increase awareness of how easy it is to host a zero-waste event. If you are hosting an event that will serve 50 meals or more, you can fill out a short form a week beforehand to have Facilities Management collect all your waste and compost it. You do need to purchase compostable plates and utensils, but they are fairly inexpensive.

Grand prize

Thanks to my colleagues in the Grossman Lab and APS program for being so supportive! Special thanks to JiJY for helping me with my slide design.

I presented my idea to a panel of judges as part the Operational Excellence Open Innovation Showcase, and was awarded the grand prize for having the most feasible, impactful idea. Shortly afterward, Minnesota Student Association passed a position statement supporting my idea. There are already a number of staff and student groups working on this, and I am excited to see how things progress going forward. At a large institution like this, change can be slow, but by getting tapped into the community of individuals dedicating their time to this important issue, I am optimistic for the future.

New lab member explores Minnesota greenhouses

Publication date: 
November 4, 2014

Author: Elizabeth Perkus

Hi everybody, I’m the newest member of the Grossman lab!

Welcome Liz

My name is Liz Perkus, and I’m a junior scientist in the lab.  I’m working on a large collaborative project, and many of the people involved welcomed me to the job one month ago at this lovely lunch.

In the month since I’ve arrived, I’ve been planning 3 complimentary projects funded by a MNDrive grant.  The goals of these projects are to investigate current winter greenhouse vegetable production in Minnesota and to come up with recommendations for growers looking to produce vegetables in future winter seasons.

One project is a survey of how five crops do under different greenhouse conditions, so this past week I traveled all over Minnesota to the eight greenhouses we are working with this year.  Some of them are flower growers, like Bergen’s in Detroit Lakes.


Others already grow a variety of vegetables through the winter, like Pork and Plants in Altura.

Hydro lettuce

Three of the eight greenhouses are specialized “deep winter greenhouses.”  They are built specifically for winter growing only, though some people use them as a giant food dehydrator in the summer.  So far, growers have been able to successfully grow a variety of greens, pac choi, kale, cabbage, and broccoli through the Minnesota winters with no added light or heat.  At Paradox Farm in Ashby, they also grow fodder for their milking livestock.

Deep winter goats

At the greenhouses, I planted the first replicate of our crops: a mesclun mix of arugula, mizuna, and red giant mustard, kale, strawberries, spinach, and cucumbers.  I also took measurements on the different potting mixes that each greenhouse uses.  Esther Gesick, a lab technician in John Erwin’s lab, came with me.  At one of the greenhouses, we had a little extra help.

Science cat

Here is what the mesclun mix greens look like about a week and a half after sowing.

Sprouted greens

Hopefully there will be some left over after sampling!

Linking up with food justice groups in the Twin Cities

Publication date: 
October 29, 2014

Author: Daniel Raskin

Back in September, I followed up on an e-mail invitation that was passed along through the University’s Sustainable Ag listserve, and attended the annual board meeting of the Twin Cities Agricultural Land Trust. Having spent all summer on campus or in the field, I’d been itching to meet up with folks working on different aspects of the food system. Below is an account of the meeting.

Not knowing what to expect, I was confused when I reached the location: Finnegan’s, a boutique coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis. The barista directed me to a side room, and I was greeted by a crowd of food justice activists, delicious snacks, and best of all, free beer! Finnegan’s, I learned, is a non-profit brewery that donates its profits to hunger alleviation initiatives. It also maintains a conference center where community groups may host meetings. Thanks Finnegan’s! And not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only person in our lab group who had the idea to attend. Right before the meeting started, Julie showed up! I was in the right place.

So what’s the Land Trust all about? For new farmers looking to produce food for consumers in the Twin Cities, proximity to urban markets is a major asset. However, gaining access to land on a permanent, or even long-term basis, is a major challenge for new farmers of all stripes. Land trusts can help facilitate secure, long-term access to land. From the TCALT website:

“The Land Trust is nonprofit organization and a legal entity that facilitates the ownership or leasing of land for urban agriculture purposes, such as farmers markets, market gardening, urban farms and community gardens.

“This Land Trust would acquire, hold, and steward land for urban and rural farming and community gardens, manage conservation easements, provide educational, legal and structural support to growers,and connect farmers with markets and community members. The organization would increase long term, stable land access for urban farmers and gardeners in order to create food and farming systems have equitable access to land for growing food, urban agriculture business opportunities, and access to good food.”

We heard from two speakers: Pakou Hang, the Executive Director of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), and Ginger Cannon, a planner for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Pakou Hang spoke brilliantly about the unique challenges that Hmong-American farmers face—especially the need for collaborative research University scientists! Ginger Cannon described the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Boards’ efforts to incorporate urban agriculture into their long-term goals.

The Land Trust, I learned, is entering its third year as an organization, and is hoping to establish its status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit within the month. It will continue establishing partnerships with urban farmers, community groups, and organizations like HAFA to acquire and hold land for farmers, gardeners and communities.

The real purpose of the meeting, other than to educate interested citizens and supply me with beer, was to vote on new board members. Seven names were nominated, and we voted on four new board members—including Hennepin County Extension Educator Karl Hakanson, and a fellow Applied Plant Sciences student Michelle Dobbratz.

The evening was well-spent making connections with community activists who are working to make our food system more equitable.

Hoch Orchards

Publication date: 
July 8, 2014

Author: Peyton Ginakes


Harry started off the tour near the veggie plots

Last Friday, we took two labs and a student organic farm’s worth of folks down to La Crescent, MN in the bluffs to visit Hoch Orchards.  It was an awesome field trip full of friends and food and, of course, farming!  We arrived in the late morning, and enjoyed a potluck lunch along with an introduction session.  Potlucks are easily my favorite way to gather – and this one did not disappoint.  The food was plentiful, we enjoyed the farm’s delicious cider, and learned lots about each other and the farm.

The farm is run by a great duo, Jackie and Harry Hoch, and has been in Harry’s family for more than 60 years.  Both Harry and Jackie attended the University of Minnesota – Harry for horticulture, integrated pest management, and sustainable agriculture, and Jackie for business and medical technology.  They took over the farm nearly 20 years ago, and transitioned to certified organic production in 2010.   They have worked with the U’s student organic farm (Cornercopia) in the past, providing fruit trees, and are very interested in keeping up with our sustainable agriculture programs and research areas.  They also have interns, most of whom are international MAST (Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee) folks.

Bushel cooler

The bushel cooler – stacked to the ceiling!

Hoch Orchards’ specialty is apples – bushels and bushels of apples!  Just walking through a brief tour of their orchards gave me an incredible appreciation for the work that goes into this kind of operation: grafting, IPM (integrated pest management), intercropping and cover cropping – not to mention working with retailers and the organic certification process.  They also raise livestock, have a vegetable garden for themselves and their interns, and have on-site experimental greenhouses for fun varieties of blackberries, raspberries, hops, etc.

Farm management is Harry’s forte, while Jackie manages the processing/business sides of things.  Their farm supplies several co-ops in the Twin Cities, sells at farmers markets, and has recently begun hosting u-pick days.  They make lots of “value-added goods” out of both apples and their other crops: jams, preserves, vinegars, juices, syrups, cider, and also sell their meats on the farm.  Soon, cider from their apples will be commercially available.  Hear, hear!

Short of working on a farm yourself, I feel that visiting farms is really one of the best ways to understand farmers’ perspectives and to learn about the work and passion that goes into it.  Harry and Jackie are open to group tours and showing others what their farm is all about, so if anyone out there is interested (or wants to just attend a u-pick day!), please visit hochorchard website.


our group and Jackie in front of the hoophouse (and cute farm pup, Juniper!)