From chickens to wind turbines

The next chapter in campus sustainability
July, 2011

When campuses around the country began to commit to their own visions of sustainability several years ago, there was no road map. Since then, each of Minnesota's private colleges and universities has followed its own plan. And while some of the early steps in becoming more environmentally friendly might have been obvious, institutions' next steps vary from school to school.

We checked in with three campuses to survey what they have been up to lately and found that their efforts aren't just good for the environment — they're also saving campuses money and educating the larger community about sustainable living.

A powerful commitment to using less
wind turbineWhen a college begins making plans to become more sustainable, using less energy and decreasing its carbon footprint are often first on a list of goals. But there are many ways to use fewer fossil fuels. Seven years ago, Carleton College in Northfield installed a wind turbine, capable of producing the equivalent of a third of the annual campus energy demand.

Now, Carleton is in the process of getting its second wind turbine up and running. This turbine will be similar in appearance and output to the first, but different in one important way — while the first turbine produced energy that was sold to Xcel Energy to serve the public grid, this turbine's output will bring power directly to campus. "Even though it's the second turbine, it's still exciting," said Martha Larson, Carleton's manager of campus energy and sustainability. "People are waiting for it."

Though the turbine is due to arrive this fall or winter, its arrival date is pending the manufacturer's production schedule. The turbine's foundation has been poured at its future site, in an agricultural parcel the college is leasing from a local farmer. The location will have a similarly favorable wind profile to the first turbine, and Larson is hoping it will be installed this fall. "For us, for our campus, this is one of the biggest impacts we can have in reducing greenhouse emissions."

Students are also taking the lead in more subtle ways to reduce waste. One such effort involves eliminating trays from a campus cafeteria — a small change that can make a big difference in the amount of food that is thrown away every day. "This is absolutely a student idea, very grassroots," Larson said.

During the 2010-11 school year, two students who worked as sustainability assistants collaborated to organize "Trayless Tuesdays," where students receive meals on a single plate rather than on a large plastic tray. The students, along with two student groups, then measured the amount of food waste produced on Tuesdays and compared it to other days, when students still took a tray that could hold several plates. They found a 20 to 25% reduction in food waste on Tuesdays, Larson said.

This year, every day will be trayless, unless students request one. Students can still go back to get as much food as they want. "Going trayless initially seems to many to be very inconvenient, but soon habits change. It reduces food waste by discouraging people from getting more food than they can eat," said Alex Lai, one of the student sustainability assistants who spearheaded the project.

Lai said the reduction in food waste last year totaled about 77 pounds of food each Tuesday. Carleton's food service company has pledged that whatever money is saved in food costs will be reinvested in the quality of offerings, so the proposition is beneficial for everyone involved, including the environment. "Considering that food and agriculture are estimated to be responsible for about 30% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, beginning to work on food waste could have a significant impact," Lai said.

Gone to the . . . chickens?
Macalester's chicken coopAt Macalester College, another student-led initiative aims to show the campus and community that participating in the urban chicken movement is doable.  In April 2011, soon-to-be junior Leah Plummer and several other members of MULCH, a student group that focuses on sustainable food, purchased a chicken coop and six chickens after months of research and the completion of a written proposal. Since then, they've been lucky enough to get fresh eggs each day, and they'll soon be able to show the community what keeping chickens is all about.

"I see the coop as part of the rising student interest in local foods, as well as an extension of our student garden," said Suzanne Savanick Hansen, sustainability manager at Macalester. "It's an educational tool."

Savanick Hansen said the chickens aren't "production chickens," as that would require them to meet certain codes, and Plummer emphasized that "the coop isn't going to provide all of the eggs for Macalester's cafeteria anytime soon." The goal, Plummer said, "is to get as many faculty, students and staff involved as possible, and get them excited about having chickens."

Now that the coop is up and running and a "chicken care schedule" has been created so someone is always responsible for feeding the chickens and cleaning the coop, the next step is engaging the community, including local schoolchildren.

"We haven't done it yet, but we're really excited about the prospect of having kids on campus, maybe coming to the coop for a field trip," Plummer said. "The opportunities for making those connections with the community are definitely coming up."

Plummer said she and the other students responsible for proposing the coop don't see buying more chickens or making the coop larger as future goals — but she is interested in other food-related sustainability efforts, including canning her own food. She is even interested in keeping bees on campus for honey, though she hasn't proposed anything yet. "Macalester is a great place to model urban sustainable living," Plummer said.

Meanwhile, with most students gone for the summer, the chickens have garnered only positive reactions. "So far, people just love it," Savanick Hansen said. "And it's one of the few urban campus chicken coops, so it's unique."

Modeling an organic garden
Bean teepee from Concordia's gardenAs many Minnesota private college campuses have found, gardens provide more than just a nice yield of summer produce. Organic gardens are also a great way to show a community the value of eating locally and in a healthier way, according to Gretchen Harvey, a history professor at Concordia College.

"Our garden doesn't produce a ton of food, but to me its greatest value is in modeling a method of healthy food production for the campus and Moorhead community," Harvey said. "It also provides a chance for two interns to collaborate with community partners."

Harvey is currently a volunteer advisor to the interns who are working with the garden for the summer; she became involved when she joined the sustainability task force at Concordia College in the spring of 2009. Because she had an interest in gardening, she was asked to draw up a proposal for an organic garden. At the same time, Harvey was planning a senior capstone course focused on sustainability; she decided to incorporate the garden into her course, "Building Sustainable Communities Initiative: Food, Hunger and Climate Change."

The garden began in April 2010; this past spring, capstone students helped plan for and raise necessary funds to develop the garden more fully. In addition, Student Environmental Alliance, a student organization, has been supportive of the garden, doing planning and outreach work, Harvey said. Vegetables from the garden are currently sold at the campus center one day a week; what doesn't sell is donated to a local charity.

Harvey and the interns have teamed up with a local elementary school to meet their goal of the garden engaging the community. A second and third grade class has planted seedlings each year to get the garden started, and this August the kids will participate in an activity at harvest time and eat a simple meal with vegetables from the garden.

In the future, Harvey said she'd love to see the garden expand in creative ways, with everything from edible landscaping and perennials to fruit and nut trees and "vertical gardening" — and she hopes that the garden will foster more community partnerships. "First and foremost, it's a teaching garden. It's all about responsible engagement and stewardship," Harvey said.