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Growing Local Food at the UM Campus Farm: Jeremy Moghtader

Jeremy Moghtader gives a brief overview of the University of Michigan Campus Farm and how students are able to help produce food.
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Welcome back to the Teach-Out on Food Sustainability. I’m here today with Jeremy Moghtader, who’s the program manager at the University of Michigan Campus Farm. And in this segment, we are going to be talking about the value of a living and learning laboratory that is the U of M farm. Thank you for joining us today. <v ->Thanks for having me out.</v> <v ->Yeah, absolutely.</v> So let’s jump right into it. We’re here in a hoop house. We’ve got some interesting weather going on. Can you tell us a little bit more about this space and what it is?
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<v ->Yeah, absolutely.</v> Well, you can see it’s a space that, although it’s March in Michigan and it’s sleeting outside, we have it full of spinach and full of arugula that we’re going to be able to produce, to go to the dining halls and be served to students, grown by students for students is one of the major missions and themes for the students who work here and who manage and run the campus farm. And we can talk more about how passive solar hoop houses allow us, even in Michigan, to have local product year round. Perfect. Well, can you tell me a little bit more about exactly that? How does kind of this system feed into the local food?
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<v ->Right.</v> The passive solar hoop house is heated only by the sun. So there are as no external heat source in here, the temperature bump that we’re feeling, and the reason that we’re comfortable in the clothes we’re in, even though it’s freezing cold outside, is because as the greenhouse effect applies, sun is coming in from outside of the house, it’s either being absorbed by the thermal mass of the soil, or it’s reflecting off of the plants in the soil, when it reflects off of that, the water vapor on the roof, as well as the plastic film, bounces that solar energy back in here warming up the environment, creating a greenhouse effect that keeps it warmer than ambient.
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But then the trick is, at night, the thermal mass of the soil, which never really freezes in here, reradiates a lot of that stored energy back up to keep these crops happy. A lot of people are, wonder, does it freeze in here at night? And the answer is it does freeze in here at night. And so the plants that we grow in here have to be leafy greens that are tolerant of freezing and thawing. And one of the really cool side benefits of that is, is that they store sugars in their cells to decrease the freezing temperature of the water and in doing so, they, has the added benefit that the crops are extra tender and sweet.
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<v ->That’s amazing.</v> That’s really great. Well, so, we’re standing, we’ve got some spinach right here. <v ->Yep.</v> <v ->Can you tell me a little bit more about the difference</v> in terms of kind of greenhouse gas emissions and impact for say, getting spinach here locally out of this greenhouse versus having it coming in from somewhere else? <v ->Yeah, so I think there are a couple of different ways</v> you can look at those environmental factors. This product that we’re growing here is only going to be traveling about five or six miles onto the campus dining halls. That is one portion of the carbon footprint associated with food.
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The other parts are our farming practices and what we’re doing in here to minimize and not use synthetic nitrogen based fertilizers, which have a strong carbon footprint, a heavy carbon footprint. And so by using carbon-related nutrient sources, like composts that are coming from local environments, we’re minimizing some of the carbon footprint associated with the production. And then of course, because we’re able to grow local produce in Michigan year round in these hoop houses, we’re also able to offset some of the other environmental impacts that might happen by moving crops like spinach or arugula or lettuce, which are largely water, from desert environments in the west, excuse me, to places with abundant fresh water like Michigan. <v ->Sure, sure.</v> That’s great.
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So it sounds like there are a lot of benefits when you’re looking at kind of mitigating or adapting to climate change. <v ->Right.</v> <v ->Can you talk about maybe some of the other benefits</v> that a hoop house like this would offer to a community? <v ->Yeah.</v> I think one of the things that it offers to local farms that offers increased economic advantage. So a lot of times in Michigan with our growing season, you might only get one or two crops out of an, in a, produce crops out of an outdoor environment. In here we’re able to get three, four, sometimes more than that crop.
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So it increases your, you know, growing, extends the season, on your growing season and allows you to increase your revenue production with really nutritious and fairly high value crops like spinaches and salad mixes, kale, chard, things like that, that we can grow all winter, and the public, I think, can get a sense of how that connectivity in terms of their local economy, and in terms of their own sense of wellbeing is connected to their production and consumption cycles. And that consumption isn’t just something that’s disconnected from its production. That happens only on one side of the equation, but that those relationships maybe have power in people understanding and thinking about their actions and how they affect larger systems.
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<v ->Right, right.</v> So obviously it’s a very complex issue to be talking about, but this provides us a lot of context. So here on the University of Michigan Campus Farm, you also have a, what you’re calling a freight farm, which is a different kind of way of growing food. Can you tell us a little bit more about what the freight farm is and kind of how it fits in within this larger ecosystem?
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<v ->Yeah, right, so</v> in the context of both farmers and consumers wanting to have more local product in places that might have either climactic or soil challenges or other challenges related to growing year round in those environments, some folks have been really interested in looking at some more, I’ll say, high tech or technological solutions. So this is a pretty low tech environment. It’s basically a steel frame with a piece of plastic over it and soil, water, and plants. And so that’s fairly low tech. It’s raining on us a little bit in here, from the condensation.
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But in the freight farm, it’s a fully containerized, it’s a fully enclosed shipping container that uses LED lighting and recirculated water in a hydroponic growing system to try to have product that’s available year round on a very small footprint. And so there’s different applications why that might be interesting. One of the things we’re interested in doing here at the Campus Farm with students and some researchers from the Center for Sustainable Systems, is looking at the water use efficiency and the carbon footprint of comparing a passive solar hoop house model to an LED shipping container model and looking to see what kind of indicators might we get from that data collection.
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And then helping large purchasers like institutions think about how to more sustainably source. Is the, which of those are options, is actually gonna, you know, help them achieve their goals of carbon neutrality? <v ->Wonderful.</v> So it sounds like you’re kind of breaking ground in a lot of systems level, trying to understand the research and kind of figure out what is the next step to kind of create a more sustainable food system, but you’re also working at the individual level.
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So kind of on that note, looking at kind of where our learners are coming in from all over the world, what would be one action that you recommend somebody take to kind of better understand how systems like this can benefit their community? <v ->Yeah, I think that</v> when we think about agricultural systems, there are many components related to both their environmental footprint, but also related to the economic impact on the local economies.
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Farms and other direct production businesses tend to have a larger multiplier effect in the economy. So I think people really learning about how those businesses are working in their community, understanding more about where their food is coming from, being thoughtful about some of the components. I know that the ecosystem is complicated. We’re trying to help generate some data and some information to help make those decisions clearer and simpler. But at the same time, I think it goes a long way for people to just be cognizant and reflective of where their food is coming from, trying to eat things that are as produced as locally as possible, that are healthy for them and healthy for the environment.
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<v ->Wonderful.</v> Thank you so much, Jeremy, for joining us today. <v ->Thanks for having me.</v> <v ->Thank you for joining us in this session.</v> And we look forward to continuing the conversation in other parts of this Teach-Out.

The localization movement is in full swing, but what does ‘eating local’ actually mean and what are the benefits from doing so? In this segment Jeremy and Benjamin talk about local food systems at the University of Michigan Campus Farm at the Botanical Gardens.

Jeremy Moghtader is the Program Manager at the University of Michigan Campus Farm at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Full bio here.

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