RAPID CITY, S.D. (Aug. 4, 2014) – Mere hours from the SD School of Mines & Technology lies another campus, one without access to fresh fruit, vegetables or other whole foods. But one group of Mines students is determined to make a difference. On Tuesday, Aug. 5, they will begin to install a hoop house at Oglala Lakota College (OLC) on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-declared food desert. Aimed at sustainable food production, students hope the hoop house will offer OLC students access to healthy food options and potentially become a profitable produce market for the surrounding community.
Recent graduate Lyndsey Penfield, a mechanical engineer from Olds, Iowa, said the project began in September of 2013 with a meeting between the Mines student design team and an OLC representative.
Working closely with OLC students and faculty, Mines students narrowed down various conceptual designs until deciding upon a 20-foot-by-24-foot hoop house to serve as a prototype for growth and development.
The design satisfied all OLC objectives: extend the growing season, provide a flexible growing environment and scalable template for future expansion, remain durable and low maintenance and create job opportunities with provided support and education.
After the student team finalized the design, they handed the project over to sophomore Bo Paulsen, a mechanical engineering major from Rapid City, to find a suitable location. For Paulsen, the project held special resonance. Before transferring to Mines, he had been an OLC student himself.
After the OLC administration selected its Kyle campus as the building site, Paulsen began adopting the students’ design to fit cost considerations, eschewing a concrete foundation in favor of earth augers, a moveable foundation sold by greenhouse manufacturers, and planting directly into the ground. Paulsen likens the final hoop house design to half of a can on the ground, a giant circle that is not only transportable and more cost effective than a traditional greenhouse, but reduces wind and snow loads, as well. Funds used to purchase the materials came from a donation by Charles Marks. Jennifer Benning, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and Dan Dolan, Ph.D., professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, director, Center of Excellence for Advanced Manufacturing and Production, serve as advisers to the Mines student design team.
After the hoop house is fully operational by the end of the week, Mines students will continue to develop different systems to extend the growing season to 10 months, and with time, year-round – all without drawing on outside electricity.
In the meantime, OLC students will test various seeding methods and begin developing a business plan to eventually run the hoop house as profitable produce center. Paulsen says that in the beginning, the produce will be given to OLC students and faculty free of cost, but with an attached hypothetical value. Business majors at OLC will then calculate sales and compare them with investments to determine profit margins and if the hoop house could generate self-sustaining revenue at a future date.
Paulsen’s next goal: an aquaponic system housed within the hoop house. “The next thing I want to work on is to look at a way of raising fish and growing plants at the same time. I think that’ll be the way to get the most food for this space. The fish fertilize the plants, and the plants feed the fish.” And the water cycles from the planters into the fish tanks and back. Paulsen hopes to start testing small systems at the beginning of this semester, teaching OLC students working in the hoop house how to run an aquaponic system, so his fieldwork can carry on as he continues classes at Mines.
For Penfield, the feeling of watching almost a year’s worth of work bear fruit – quite literally – is incomparable.
“I chose to work on the sustainable greenhouse project due to the direct humanitarian impact. I feel that as an engineer I have a choice as to how I apply engineering fundamentals and … this particular project resonated with my personal values. From concept to build, the process has been one of development and growth, and the process for a project like this is just as important as the final product. Now to be breaking ground is a very exciting time. As an engineer, design ideas are always developing in my mind, but to work with people who are making the idea a reality is truly a humbling experience.”
Founded in 1885, the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is a science and engineering research university located in Rapid City, S.D., offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The university enrolls 2,640 students from 45 states and 37 countries, with a student-to-faculty ratio of 14:1. The average starting salary for graduates is $62,020 with a 98 percent placement rate. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/sdsmt and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sdsmt.