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Cali Owings, Published June 23 2013

Manager combines interest in insects, plants at NDSU greenhouse complex

FARGO – More than 300 researchers rely on precise conditions in their lab space in the Agricultural Experiment Station Research Greenhouse Complex at North Dakota State University.

With the help of a state-of-the-art computer system, Julie Hochhalter controls each greenhouse individually to meet researchers’ needs. She’ll soon add eight more greenhouse rooms to the 77 she currently oversees and complete 30 hours of programming before they open to researchers in July. Hochhalter, who studied plant industries management at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, before earning her master’s degree in entomology at NDSU, said the greenhouse is a great blend of her plant and insect interests.

What is a typical day like?

No two days are the same. This is a research facility so when we arrive in the morning the first thing we do (if we haven’t already from home) is log into the computer system and make sure all the greenhouses are up and running. Usually if something isn’t working, the system has already called me in the middle of the night to let me know what to expect in the morning.

We open at 7:30 so usually our researchers start arriving at that time. From there, you never really know where you’ll be. You could be doing office work, helping people find supplies, changing settings for people. A little bit of everything.

How many hours did it take to complete training for the computerized system?

Over 100 hours of training on the phone. … I have 24-hour access to a support person in British Columbia who I can call and they will call me back within five minutes if I can’t answer a question.

Can you tell me a story of a time when you had to solve a greenhouse disaster?

I don’t know if there’s been a disaster. I get a lot of calls in the middle of the night. When it first opened, we had 14 rooms. One night one room was cold and I didn’t know what went wrong. I had just been here a little while; it was my first winter. I shut the shade curtains, turned on the heat and thought ‘It’s not going to freeze overnight.’ So then the next morning I talked to the plumber for the building and a pipe had frozen.

There are only a handful of things I have to come in from home to fix. I can shut the shades, turn on the lights and go back to bed and it will keep it warm until morning.

What is your favorite part about managing the greenhouse?

It’s never the same. It’s fun to see the projects that people are doing and how that plays into the big picture of food and agriculture in general.

Do you interact with many of the researchers who use this building every day?

If they need help finding something. The building is huge so I buy supplies not by one or two but by the semi load or the pallet. If somebody is filling a room, that could be 1,000 pots, so we’ll just grab a pallet and take the supplies and set it right outside their door.

They come and go during the day. Everyone is so spread out. I answer questions on fertilizer or what’s the best pot to use or if something went wrong during their experiment.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599