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Published August 24, 2010, 09:21 AM

NDSU greenhouse ‘complex’ hardly fits its size and scope

Think in terms of three football fields in length, says D.C. Coston, North Dakota State University’s vice president for Agriculture and University Extension, talking about the NDSU “greenhouse complex.”

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Think in terms of three football fields in length, says D.C. Coston, North Dakota State University’s vice president for Agriculture and University Extension, talking about the NDSU “greenhouse complex.”

Yes, football is an apt metaphor for the size and scope of a new greenhouse facility, just a few blocks from where the North Dakota State University Bison football team soon will kick off its 2010 gridiron season.

Coston thinks the facility will bring in a new era for agricultural research at NDSU. He can envision dozens of high-tech agricultural researchers, gathering to add value to North Dakota’s biggest, most permanent industry — agriculture.

“This will be the only one of its type in North America,” Coston says. “A lot of places have the various pieces, but this will be the only one that has all of it under one roof. When it’s completed there will be about 100 separate chambers in the entire complex. Each one is controlled separately for its own environment.

The facility is built for doing “high-quality, very precise work,” but also a lot of that type of work, Coston says, offering a walking a tour amid the construction. Coston will go to the 2011 Legislature to secure what he hopes will be final funding for the project.

With him was Peter A. Nygaard, assistant director of development for the NDSU Development Foundation, which is seeking donations to help complete the project. It is a project with a long history and big, big dreams.

Ag industry’s No. 1

North Dakota’s agriculture industry developed ideas and dreams for a new greenhouse complex in the 1990s, Coston says. The idea was to replace greenhouses that were largely built in the 1950s to help battle challenges as big as stem rust in wheat.

After 60 years of use, agriculture leaders saw a need to more than double on-campus greenhouse space, with state-of-the-art technology that could allow more precise and bio-secure projects. Besides wheat and barley, agriculture needs answers for its newest crops — things like pulses, dry edible beans and canola.

The State Board of Agricultural Research and Education, created in 1999 in its current form as an advisory council to NDSU’s ag administrators, went to the North Dakota Legislature with a big vision — $30 million to $35 million greenhouse. Here’s what’s transpired since then:

- The 2005 Legislature appropriated $7 million for the project. This included $2 million in bonding funds and $5 million in “special” funds. Special funds would be non-state-appropriated funds, including federal and donations. Initially, the idea was to wait for all of the funds to be accumulated before any money could be spent.

The 2007 Legislature approved another, separate $7 million for the project. The Legislature approved an important change — the project could start construction with whatever funds on hand at any given time. NDSU moved forward with detailed planning and architectural work. In winter 2008, the State Board of Higher Education approved letting bids, and in the spring and summer of 2008, initial work was done with $11.6 million. (This includes nearly $2.6 million in special funds.) This Phase I part is nearing completion. This includes the front door structure for the facility and a basement corridor for a 900-foot-long foundation to the headhouse. About 40 percent of the headhouse is erected. One of seven expected greenhouse “ranges” are done, each with roughly 14 chambers.

- Based on a recommendation from then-President Chapman in 2008, the NDSU Foundation studied the feasibility of a $3 million goal for the project, set the goal and now have raised about $2.5 million of that. Nygaard has led this project and expects those funds to be raised before the 2011 Legislature convenes in January.

Some $2.6 million has been raised from commodity organizations and individuals, and none from the large genetics or chemical companies. Those companies likely will be among partners with NDSU researchers later, once the facility is complete.

- The 2009 Legislature approved nearly $11.5 million more, from “general” or tax-generated funds, in accordance with Gov. John Hoeven’s budget request. Phase II would include more greenhouses to the south and construction of foundations for several more ranges of greenhouses. In August 2009, NDSU awarded a small contract for some foundation work and for a geothermal field., a ground-source heat pump to cool or heat the buildings, all backed up by steam from the university. So about $23 million has been spent or approved so far.

- NDSU, SBARE and other will go to the 2011 Legislature to complete the $30 million facility, including $32.5 million. About $7 million will be requested from general funds. Coston hopes this again will be in the governor’s recommended budget and that the Legislature will approve it.

This phase would include so-called Level 2 biosecurity. An example would be where a genetically modified crop that is close to being fully approved isn’t quite there. It might deal with a pathogen that is already in the state, but needs to be contained.

A third and final piece of the project is Biosafety Level 3 security. This would be a relatively small, self-contained part of the laboratory where scientists or workers would shower-in and shower-out.

“Nothing comes out of there that isn’t incinerated,” Coston says.

An example of this kind might be on the so-called Ug99, an emerging virulent wheat stem rust strain, found elsewhere in the world. Another might be on zebra chip disease in potatoes.

“There’s a finite probability that those diseases will get here, and we want to have North Dakota answers to those problems before they do,” Coston says. “But we need to be sure the work is contained.”

Nygaard is enthusiastic about what the facility will mean for agriculture.

“I tell these administrators that there’s an opportunity to set the direction of research in North Dakota for a generation or two,” Nygaard says.

“This is one of those rare places where individual farmers and their organizations can make a financial commitment where they know they’ll get something in return,” Coston says. “We’ve had some individual producers tell us they are giving because they see it has a potential ‘return-on-investment.’ Other individuals tell us they are no longer farming but believe NDSU was a major part of their success, so this is a philanthropic legacy for them.”

Coston says the facility already has been a magnet for some of the new hires at NDSU in the past few months. He thinks it will have an impact in attracting graduate students and post-doctoral candidates.

“Frankly, there are very few places in this country right now that can make this type of investment,” he says. “Because of the health of the economy, we’ve been able to make substantial investments.”

A committee of scientists on campus will determine who gets space in the new facility. It’s a kind of “needs-based” competitive thing and could be adjusted if some emergency occurs. The greenhouses are the big, visible part of the facility, but it is much more a “plant controlled environment facility” that allows faculty to have access to “capabilities that spark their imaginations,” as Coston puts it.

Coston is confident that the facility will produce answers that will “benefit everyone in North Dakota.”

“This shows that North Dakota understands that agriculture will continue to be a major component of the economy in this state, and that for that to occur, we have to be competitive with people throughout the world,” he says. “This is about keeping North Dakota’s economy going, and to keep the ag piece of it competitive and the best in the world.”

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