LaFarm Greenhouse

[For a complete PDF version of this project, please view the LaFarm Greenhouse Final Report.]


LaFarm is a sustainability initiative at Lafayette College with the mission to integrate curriculum and practice in sustainable food and agriculture for the campus community. LaFarm grows produce for the dining halls, recycles nutrients from composted food back to the soil, and serves as a laboratory for collaborative student-faculty education and research. Our hope is that LaFarm will continue to engage students across all disciplines and facilitate the necessary conversations about sustainability, agriculture, and business.

Currently, LaFarm does not have a greenhouse and has rented greenhouse space from the Seed Farm in Emmaus, PA. We believe that implementing a greenhouse at LaFarm would promote its educational opportunities, increase agricultural yield, and ultimately benefit the local community in a sustainable way. This Capstone Project presents a feasibility study on alternative designs for a sustainable greenhouse to be implemented at LaFarm.  After considering the various social, policy, technical, and economic contexts of LaFarm and the community, we provide a proposal for the scope, scale, and impact of three different types of greenhouses.

Research Question: What would it take to get a greenhouse at LaFarm that would be sustainable and would best fulfill the current needs of LaFarm?

Research Goal: Analyze three standard greenhouse designs for how they would change LaFarm and expand educational opportunities at Lafayette College, and define the processes for constructing them sustainably within that system.

LaFarm History

“LaFarm” is the acronym used to describe the “Lafayette College Student Working Farm and Community Garden”. It is a two-acre working farm and community garden located about 3 miles from Lafayette College’s main campus. LaFarm is positioned between Lafayette’s off-campus athletics center, Metzgar Field, and several acres of arable land that are owned by Lafayette but leased to a local farmer.

In 2009, a student named Jenn Bell started LaFarm, under the guidance of Professor Art Kney and help from fellow students. Bell received a grant from the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference known as the CGI-U Outstanding Commitment Award, which funded the initial purchase and construction of LaFarm’s fence, shed, basic equipment, and the first year of seeds. Jenn managed the farm until 2012, when the project received additional grant funding to establish a Garden Manager position, which has been held by Sarah Edmonds. In addition to Sarah’s management, an advisory board for the farm was established to oversee the project. The current members of the LaFarm Advisory Board are Professor Cohen, Professor Brandes, Professor Lawrence, and Professor Germanoski.

Under this new management structure, LaFarm has grown to produce a multitude of organic, heirloom varieties of vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, peppers, sweet corn, potatoes, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower. Additionally, the farm has expanded to engage participation from members of the local community with a desire for agriculture but without the means to maintain their own crops. About two-thirds of LaFarm’s land serves as the student-working farm, which provides produce to the dining halls and composts food waste from the dining halls back into nutrients for the farm. The remaining portion of LaFarm is dedicated as an organic community garden for members of the local community in Easton and Forks Township.

The Physical and Social Ecology of LaFarm

The USDA breaks up the United States into specified agricultural zones defined by regions with similar climates in terms of average sun exposure, rainfall, temperature, and frost dates. LaFarm, Lafayette College, and Easton, PA are all located in USDA Zone 6, a semi-arid climate. The USDA Zones clarify what types of crops grow in that region and what steps should be taken in order to grow non-native plants. For example, tomatoes are not native to Pennsylvania, yet many farmers grow tomatoes here. The USDA suggests that tomato plants in Zone 6 should be started indoors to grow properly, as they cannot withstand the cool temperatures common to this region.

A farm’s soil is very important to its operations. The amount of organic matter in the soil indicates the kinds of biological micronutrients available for plants, which influences how various plants will grow in that soil. Likewise, soil quality dictates which cultivation methods are most effective (e.g. more clay soils are harder to till by hand, drip irrigation is difficult in sandy soils, etc.) LaFarm has a rocky, clay-based soil with about 2% organic matter. Prior to being in organic production, the soil was mostly inert as it was under conventional GMO corn and soy cultivation.

LaFarm’s current technological infrastructure includes: a small gazebo, which provides a shady respite for laborers, 2 equipment sheds, and a sanitary drip irrigation system powered by a solar-powered pump. The land in production is surrounded by a deer fence and there is a 50 ft barrier between this fence and a conventional farmer’s land to prevent cross-contamination.

The principal reason for using greenhouse space is for seed starting, which is a vital aspect of growing most vegetables in USDA Zone 6. Seeds germinate in highly fertile soil inside the greenhouse. Plant growth is facilitated and controlled by the heat and other beneficial conditions provided by the greenhouse. After the weather warms to the point where the plant could survive outdoors, the partially grown plant (called a transplant, noun) is taken and transplanted (verb) into the soil of the farm. Without starting seed or buying transplants, the type and amount of produce a farmer can grow in Zone 6 is very limited. LaFarm doesn’t have a greenhouse and therefore rents greenhouse space from The Seed Farm in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, located more than an hour’s commute from campus. The greenhouse utilized by LaFarm is neither easily accessible nor sustainable (due to the 45 minute drive both ways).

LaFarm has expanded to be more than just a bounded space. LaFarm is now the cornerstone of Lafayette’s Sustainable Food Loop, a system of students growing food for consumption by students on campus, composting the remains, and using that compost to produce more food. Above all, LaFarm’s overarching goal is to serve as an educational laboratory for research, participation, and discussion among students and faculty. Multiple classes, such as Professor Cohen’s Technology & Nature class, have used the farm to educate, and many students have done research with professors on topics like Integrated Pest Management, Small Farm Infrastructure, while working on projects such as the Vegetables in the Community project. In addition, working on the farm has given many students valuable training in sustainable agriculture, from the outdoor skills to the know-how to plan and manage as well as how to run a market and sell wholesale. Not only has this helped train future food producers, but the LaFarm initiative is also creating a body of information accessible to small farmers in the Lehigh Valley.

Our Project

LaFarm is a keystone for biodiversity and agricultural research at Lafayette, it strives to be a model for small farmers around the Lehigh Valley for best practices and meeting industry standards, and it is a functioning garden for members of the Lafayette community. Implementing a sustainable greenhouse at LaFarm would provide a space for interdisciplinary research and education on agriculture and food in fields from chemistry and biology to anthropology and economics. It would also create more comprehensive education about sustainable vegetable production in USDA Zone 6 and would further develop a model that could be emulated by local producers.

The reason behind analyzing three alternative greenhouse designs is that LaFarm has hopes of expanding in coming years. There is the potential for LaFarm to not only expand in size in various directions, but also expand in scope. Lafayette could reclaim more of the land it is currently renting out, and create an environmental campus as an extension of the main campus, similar to the space at the base of College Hill that is becoming an arts campus. As there are so many different layers to LaFarm, we agree that no one can be sure what exact changes will occur at LaFarm over the next few years. We thus offer three possible designs for a greenhouse that can fit into the possible trajectories of LaFarm in the coming years. This research foundation will lay out a practical path to the best greenhouse for LaFarm’s needs.

The first type is a small-scale greenhouse with no mechanical or electrical inputs, commonly known as a hoophouse. The second type is a medium-scale, Gothic Framed Greenhouse, which is larger in size, incorporates basic mechanical and electrical systems for ventilation and heating, and therefore would provide seed starting capabilities at LaFarm. The third design is a large-scale, state-of-the-art,  A-Frame Greenhouse. This would be a permanent structure with fully automated ventilation and heating systems. This structure would be permanent and, though costly, the A-frame greenhouse would offer great educational and production opportunities. Integral to all of these designs is that they are as environmentally sustainable as possible, so the adaptations to normal designs in order to make these sustainable are included in the following analyses.

While it is outside of the scope of this project to construct any of these designs due to limited time and resources, we aim to fully define the reasons for having any of the above designs at LaFarm, as well as what would be required to fully realize these designs. This project will hopefully serve as a guide for other members of the Lafayette community in order to improve LaFarm’s educational and productive capacity.

To navigate this website, either use the dropdown menu under LaFarm Greenhouse or follow the links below. We recommend following the links in the order presented to get the full picture of this project; the Social Context expands upon the introduction above, each Analysis section examines our greenhouse solutions from a new lens, and the Conclusion provides a summary before our proposal of how our analyses can inform future decision making.

Social Context
Technical Analysis
Policy Analysis
Economic Analysis