Photo courtesy of Trevor Lowell

In Big Sky Country, as elsewhere, students at a liberal arts university are growing curious about what they consume, and dining services is offering resources to show them, and to get them engaged in food production.

Food production is a driving force behind the economy of the state of Montana. In 2013, agriculture and forestry accounted for 1.6 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product, but in Montana it accounted for 6.4 percent of the state’s GDP, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The state also issues grants to growers — not just growers of commodity crops, but specialty crop growers, as well. On the higher education level, Montana’s stake in agriculture is showcased by the research and extension services of its land-grant university, Montana State University, which was founded in 1893 as the Agricultural College of the State of Montana.

Lesser known in the state’s agricultural realm is the liberal arts-focused University of Montana, which offers academic programs that are focused less on plant production methods and more on environmental issues, ecology and sustainability. In the 21st century, UM students have become increasingly interested in food system transparency, locally sourced food and sustainability, says Trevor Lowell, director of sustainability for University of Montana Dining. “I think it varies from student-to-student, but I think, overall, the trend is just a greater awareness of food system issues in the past decade or so, where students are coming in as freshmen and they know some of the problems associated with our food system,” he says. “An interest in local food and an interest in a transparent food system is something that we hear a lot and see a lot of support for.”

To accommodate students’ interests — as well as those of faculty, staff and community members — UM Dining manages two produce gardens, a greenhouse, an indoor microgreen operation and an aquaponics system, Lowell says. It also possesses design plans for a new greenhouse, and, in the basement of its main dining hall, has begun growing oyster mushrooms from inoculated spore bags.

In 2016, UM Dining sold 70 varieties of produce — including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, microgreens, salad mixes and raspberries — on campus, while collaborating with student groups and professors, employing interns for credit and other students for pay, and hosting learning events such as tours and workshops for children.

Operations overview

The amount of produce grown in the two gardens and indoor areas is minor compared to the amount UM Dining purchases, Lowell says, but there is value in getting people engaged in the production process and learning how it works. The aquaponics operation, which is a collaboration with UM graduate Jeff Pernell and his company, Galactic Farms, is used primarily for educational purposes.

The microgreens operation produces around 350 pounds of crops such as broccoli, radish, pea shoots, amaranth and wheat grass each year, Lowell says. Growers seed the plants in coco coir in an indoor shelving unit, put them through a dark cycle for about three days, pull the lids off and place them under fluorescent lights. “That’s just a great way for us to keep something green and fresh in the middle of the winter all year round, to be putting in on the salad bars and in different applications,” he says.

Most of the produce comes from the gardens, Lowell says. “In the two of them, we grew about 7,000 pounds of produce last year,” he says. “Both of them are organically managed, so we haven’t gone through the certification process, but we don’t use any herbicides or pesticides, and we compost with local compost from a farm up the road and plug all that produce back into the different operations on campus.”

Gardens and greenhouses

University of Montana Dining manages a 10-by-15-foot greenhouse, seen here during construction.
Photo courtesy of Trevor Lowell

Opened in 2003, Lommasson Garden features traditional row production, raised beds, a permaculture forest and a passive-solar greenhouse that members of the 2012 graduating class helped construct, Lowell says.

The ADA-accessible, 10-by-15-foot greenhouse is made from earthbags — which Lowell notes is a construction technique that has long been used for military applications — and timber-framed wood from a local arborist. With two soil, drip-irrigated raised beds and a thermal mass on its back wall, it is primarily used for starts and hot house production for tomatoes, peppers, basil and other traditional greenhouse crops. “It does give us probably an additional month on either end of the season,” Lowell says. “So, we can finish stuff in there, and we can switch to some faster-growing produce in the fall and harvest that. Then, using it as a place to start our production early in the spring has been really useful.”

In 2016, UM Dining unveiled South Avenue Garden, which is approximately three times larger than Lommassen Garden. At the time of this story’s publishing, construction is about to commence on a roughly 500-square-foot greenhouse near the South Avenue Garden. Scheduled to open by fall 2017, the greenhouse will utilize ground-to-air heat transfer, which Lowell says will presumably extend the growing season by four or five months. “One of the challenges, especially at schools, is that your harvest seasons don’t line up with the busiest times for your operations,” Lowell says. “So, we’re always looking for ways — ‘Can we value-add some of our garden produce? Can we pickle it or store it or can it?’ We worked with the State Department of Ag here in Montana on this grant project, and they gave us some grant money to build this greenhouse.”

UM Dining will work with the Missoula County Extension and Weed District and its horticultural expert Seth Swanson to track greenhouse performance metrics such as temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide, Lowell says. In the fall, UM Dining will focus its efforts on leafy greens and root crops that require less light than fruiting crops such as tomatoes and peppers. In the greenhouse’s second year, the growers might try their hand at sweet potatoes, too.

Consumer impact

In 2003, UM Dining began a farm-to-college program, through which it buys Montana-grown and raised products, Lowell says. When UM Dining started the program, those food products only represented a small fraction of its total budget. Now, they represent almost a third of it.

Students can walk into the university’s main dining hall and see a blackboard that changes every harvest day based on what is fresh from the garden, Lowell says. At multiple campus retail outlets, signs that read, “This week’s garden produce,” notify consumers of the kale, tomatoes and other produce that is available at the salad bar. UM Dining also sells its produce through catering services, concessions, a food truck and its weekly farmers market.

When retailers can tell consumers where their food comes from, it tends to excite the consumers, Lowell says. “Nobody thinks that we’re going to get to a point where we can grow all the produce that we would need to feed the thousands of people that we feed every day,” he says. “Just engaging in that [on a smaller scale] and having those conversations is a really powerful thing and a really exciting thing. For the customer to come in and say, ‘Oh, wow, I can buy this product from you, and you guys grew this out back,’ or, ‘I can get this in my salad,’ I think that has a huge impact.”