University of Michigan students aim for carbon neutrality with small-scale farm

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Just a few miles off campus from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, students are leading the way toward a sustainable food system. Across ten acres, students cultivate a number of crops at U of M’s campus farm, including tomatoes, kale, and several kinds of squash. The produce is sold in dining halls, and directly to students at an on-campus farm stand.

On the farm, research is conducted on sustainable farming practices, like cover cropping and kernza, a perennial grain. Classes also come out to learn and collaborate. By hand, one class built U of M’s first off-the-grid building, using 18-inch thick straw bales and adobe. The farm also partners with organizations across the community on food justice issues.

And this year, the farm announced its latest project: A commitment to carbon neutrality by 2026.

The carbon neutrality plan is “absolutely necessary,” said Lunia Oriol, student and carbon neutrality manager for the campus farm.

“We want to show to the community that it's possible for a small-scale farm to achieve carbon neutrality in a way that's equitable and offers opportunities for research, for students, for collaboration, and for generating new ideas,” she said.

Oriol is one of a dozen student managers leading the way at the horizontal-power structured farm, where students are the decision-makers under the guidance of non-student staff program manager, Jeremy Moghtader.

To reach the carbon neutrality goal the farm plans to design and implement a system where crops can be grown under 100 kilowatts of solar panels, called an Agrophotovoltaics system. In addition to providing electricity, the solar panels will increase crop quality and drought resistance.

Students work at University of Michigan's student organic farm.

The system would “create synergistic land use that shows that it's possible to integrate solar energy production with agriculture, and make more use of the land,” Oriol said.

The farm will also replace its walk-in cooler with a more energy-efficient cooler. And, the team plans to address indirect emissions as well, which come from things like volunteers and staff traveling to the campus farm, and food procurement.

These emissions are “a little bit trickier to track because they're indirect and they're highly variable,” Oriol said. For now, the farm is working on identifying and quantifying these emissions and will have a mitigation plan by 2023.

Currently, the campus farm’s annual carbon dioxide emissions are around 58 metric tons. Eliminating these emissions will have the same effect as taking 12.5 gasoline-powered cars off the road for one year, according to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

The carbon neutrality plan will add to the number of climate-resilient farming practices the farm already employs, including cover cropping and the use of four hoop houses that are passively heated by solar energy. The hoop houses allow the farm to grow produce through the winter, cutting down on climate and water impacts from long-distance transport of produce like lettuce, which is almost entirely grown in Arizona and California, Moghtader said.

The farm also uses drip irrigation, which can be up to 75 percent more efficient than other forms of watering and irrigation.

“These two factors combined help us create cropping systems that are more resilient to weather extremes of drought or heavy rains that are increasing with climate change,” Moghtader told Michigan Climate News. The farm is also creating more biodiversity around the edges of the fields with diverse plants that together will provide multiple ecosystem services.

It’s not all just about climate though at the Campus Farm. A significant portion of their work is focused at the intersection of climate and justice. The farm partners with several food sovereignty organizations in Southeast Michigan on an urban agriculture internship.

The program offers an impactful, paid learning opportunity to students while advancing the community-based goals of their partner sites, which include D-Town Farm and Oakland Ave Urban Farm in Detroit and Growing Hope in Ypsilanti. The farm also partners with the student pantry on campus to provide free, healthy and local produce.

“The Campus Farm recognizes that there can be no sustainable future without social justice,” Moghtader said, “and that equity, empowerment, and self-determination are critical and necessary components of a just food system and a sustainable future.


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