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Ryan Johnson, Published November 23 2012

NDSU’s $33 million research facility not your typical greenhouse

FARGO - Ken Grafton said he’s fielded plenty of questions about the $33 million Agricultural Experiment Station research greenhouse complex on the west side of the North Dakota State University campus – especially its price tag.

But he said the facility, with its dozens of individually controlled greenhouse compartments and ability to safely research invasive insects and weeds that haven’t come to the region yet, can’t be compared to the temporary greenhouses that pop up in store parking lots each spring.

“This is very, very much a research facility,” he said. “You can consider each compartment being a research laboratory. The only difference is that you’re growing plants in it and it’s a glass roof.”

Grafton, NDSU’s vice president for agricultural affairs and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, said the facility was dreamed up a decade ago. Officials went to the state Legislature in 2003 to get approval, and in 2005, they got the initial funding to start designing the state-of-the-art complex.

The state gave more than $27 million over several legislative sessions to make the facility a reality, and private donors contributed the remaining $5 million. Construction began in 2008, and the first researchers moved their work there in the spring of 2010.

Grafton said the complex is “very large” – a bit of an understatement considering it has just under 2 acres of indoor growing space, divided up into enclosed rooms that each have their own water, heating and electrical supplies to create highly precise environments in each chamber.

“We can have one greenhouse compartment at 85 degrees and a relative humidity of 100 percent, and another greenhouse compartment at 70 degrees and 50 percent relative humidity,” he said.

Greenhouse Manager Julie Hochhalter said it’s a “500 percent” improvement from the old greenhouses, which were built in the early 1950s to combat stem rust in wheat. At the time, there were four breeding programs on campus; now there are 18, and there wasn’t space for all of them.

“In the last 50 years with GMO crops and other things, there’s some security measures that needed to be upgraded and control methods that have come out that improve the research,” she said.

Hochhalter said the energy-efficient facility is partially heated by geothermal technology, and the compartments boast energy curtains to keep heat out on sunny days and hold the heat in during the winter.

It’s also durable, she said, with efficient acrylic windows rather than glass that can be patched and should last 25 years. The facility already withstood two storms packing wind gusts more than 80 mph that blew apart temporary greenhouses on the NDSU campus, she said.

The complex has plenty of high-tech features. Hochhalter can control each compartment, adjust settings or be alerted to water leaks 24 hours a day wherever she is through an online connection.

“There is no other university that has a greenhouse like this,” she said. “You’d have to go to private industry to find one, and I would say there’s maybe four or five with these capabilities on this scale.”

The facility isn’t finished yet. Grafton said construction is ongoing on a final phase to be completed in the late spring. It will add biosafety rooms that can research invasive pests, genetically modified organisms and other regulated items after the federal government gives its approval.

Hochhalter said 66 rooms are open for research so far, and 62 rooms now have projects. About 300 graduate students, researchers, faculty and hourly workers now use the facility.

The complex has already boosted research capabilities and helped recruit leading scientists, including Maricelis Acevedo, the 2010 recipient of an international award honoring her as the outstanding female scientist working in wheat, Grafton said.

“She came to NDSU in part because of the greenhouse and the capabilities,” he said.

Acevedo is a leading researcher on Ug99, a devastating stem rust originally found in Africa that’s expected to eventually reach America, Hochhalter said. For now, Acevedo has to go to Kenya to plant wheat and do her research, but Hochhalter said the work can happen at NDSU once the biosafety labs are approved.

Those secure labs, with a variety of safeguards to prevent accidental contamination, also will be able to conduct research on the emerald ash borer and other invasive pests that could wreak havoc if they made their way to the region.

“It is one of the best greenhouse complexes in the nation,” Grafton said. “There are very few that would compete against it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587