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Out of the classroom and into the greenhouse

November 20, 2015
A group of biology and engineering students from Merrimack College recently visited a vast greenhouse used to grow tomatoes in Madison, Maine to get a perspective on the science of agriculture, as well as the business acumen needed to run the enterprise.

School of Science and Engineering Dean Allan Weatherwax arranged the visit with Paul Mucci, president of Impresa Management in Boston and a member of Merrimack’s College Leadership Council.

“I met Allan and he and I were talking and he was telling me they have a greenhouse they are trying to rehab,” said Mucci, whose son Nick Mucci graduated Merrimack in 2007. “I mentioned to him we have an operation in Maine and thought it would be good for his science students and engineering students to see.”

Mucci led the trip to Backyard Farms with Weatherwax and Biology Department Chairman Jon Lyon.

The stakes for the greenhouse are high, Weatherwax said. If any portion of the operation fails for even a few hours the company can take a big hit to its crops and revenues.

Students went behind the scenes during the day-trip to learn about the operations of the 42-acre scientific marvel that grows tomatoes throughout the harsh Maine winters. They met with the greenhouse’s head grower, the chief engineer and financial officer.

“They learned across the board they need a science background, technology background, and some business background,” Weatherwax said.

The greenhouse has environmental features that leave a reduced impact on the planet. Among those features are liquid natural gas-boilers to heat the greenhouse and a retention pond behind the building used to capture snow and rain runoff that is used to water the plants.

Growers monitor every factor in the plants’ lifecycles, including temperatures, carbon monoxide levels and water.

“It is a good mix of engineering and biology,” Mucci said.

Miranda Gagnon ’16, a biology major from Campton, N.H. who wants to work in conservation biology, was impressed by the ecological efforts the greenhouse operators use to control pollination and insects. Bumblebees have free run of the greenhouse and instead of using pesticides, the company brings in thousands of bugs weekly to control nuisance bugs, she said.

“The greenhouse is like a little ecosystem the farm created to grow tomatoes,” Lyon said.

The complexity of the operation was amazing, Gagnon said.

“Every single thing they told me blew my mind,” she said.

Mucci said he wanted to make sure students had an appreciation of the business side of running the greenhouse, including energy costs, and labor requirements. The farm’s senior business officer also discussed the business plan that includes packaging, shipping and marketing the tomatoes.

“It was a real lesson in how teams of people work together,” Lyon said.

“It’s always great to spend time with students who are inquisitive,” Mucci said after the trip. “They didn’t know what to expect; ‘ok growing tomatoes how complicated can it be,’ but it’s 42 acres under glass.”

The biology department can’t replicate the Backyard Farms greenhouse but can create a microcosm, Lyon said. Some students have already installed water sensors and more modifications are planned.

Lyon is hoping to grow endangered plants.

Students from Health Sciences Department have already said they want to visit Backyard Farms, Weatherwax said.

 

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