Campus greenhouse

Johnnie sees dream become reality at SJU

Bookmark and Share

July 12, 2013

By Mike Killeen

Groundbreaking for the SJU Greenhouse was held earlier in 2013.

Stephen Johnson '13 shares some of the lettuce grown in the greenhouse with a visitor.


Walk into the Refectory at Saint John's University on any given day and hang a left at the salad bar, you'll see a big container of lettuce.

That certainly isn't unusual at the Reef, or at thousands of other restaurants or cafeterias around the world.

But on May 6, most people probably didn't notice that the lettuce served at the Reef was a little different than normal. Had they asked where the lettuce came from, they might have been surprised.

The lettuce was grown about three long blocks from the Reef, at the new SJU passive solar greenhouse near Flynntown.

The greenhouse was the idea of SJU graduate Stephen Johnson '13.

"The idea, as cliché as it sounds, started in Disneyworld," Johnson said. "I was there with my family, and we had a chance to go to the 'Living with the Land' exhibit at Epcot. That place featured a bunch of innovative agricultural techniques. One of those was hydroponic gardening.

"I came back to school the spring of my sophomore year and really wanted to find a place to do something like this on campus," Johnson said.

So started what would become Johnson's two-year quest to build the greenhouse. Working with Nick Moe, then the sustainability fellow at SJU, as well as Physical Plant and Institutional Advancement, the greenhouse finally opened this spring.

"It got to the point where even this fall, it looked like the greenhouse wasn't going to get built, because we couldn't raise enough money. The structure was too expensive. But the Physical Plant did a great job bringing the cost down (by using surplus materials already on hand), and Institutional Advancement did a good job on the other end raising $80,000, and we were able to make it work," Johnson said.

The passive solar heating system allows produce to be grown during the height of a cold Minnesota winter. Heat rises, but in the greenhouse, it is pumped from the ceiling down to the soil. Rather than sitting on a concrete slab, a combination of river rock, soil and insulation stores the heat and makes it available at night when the sun isn't out.

"The system uses about $75 for heat per year, so it's super efficient," Johnson said.

A staggered planting system will net several harvests throughout the academic year, with the majority of the produce being sold back to SJU Dining Service. Future markets may include the St. Joseph Farmer's Market, restaurants and co-ops in the area. 

"SJU Dining Service is excited to partner with the student-run greenhouse and have locally-grown lettuce during the months of October through March," said Dave Schoenberg, director of Dining and Events at SJU. "Dining Service is committed to provide fresh, healthy, locally-grown products to the university community. The availability of local greenhouse lettuce, during the Minnesota winter, provides our students with another local food item on our menu." 

With Johnson having graduated in May, senior Ben Broos will be the new general manager of the greenhouse and senior Joe Miller the new finance manager. Both Broos and Miller will work closely with the Donald McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship and other student volunteers, said Terri Barreiro, director of the McNeely Center. An educational component will be addressed in the fall, Barreiro added.

For Johnson, the greenhouse symbolizes a back to the future element.

"I think it just falls in line really well with the Benedictine values - kind of a stewardship of the land," Johnson said. "It's kind of going back to the roots of Saint John's, when we produced all our own food.

"I think it's important that people don't lose sight of where their food is coming from, especially in the industrialized food system today. People need to have a connection with their food, and this is a good way to open that door," Johnson said.

The door is also opening at the College of Saint Benedict.

Madeline Hansen '13 and senior Stephanie Pinkalla have spearheaded an effort to build a passive solar greenhouse at CSB. Ground has been broken for the project near the maintenance building on the south end of the CSB campus, and it is expected to be completed by start of the school year. CSB facilities management employees have done the bulk of construction work to date.

The plan at CSB is to have two growing seasons - one beginning in October, and another in January. Arugula, lettuce, kale, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi and bok choy are expected to be grown.

"The produce that we grow - the students grow - will be sold to the Gorecki Center for use in the dining center," Pinkalla said.

The CSB greenhouse will also have an educational component. Students, community members and elementary school students will be able to come in and learn about the process and get connected to their food and "go through the full circle of life," Pinkalla said.