Horticulture Program Branching Out With New Facility

Southeast Missouri State University’s horticulture program had its roots decades ago in fruit and vegetable production.

Today, the program is branching out to appeal to students interested in greenhouse management, landscape planting and design, turfgrass, and the burgeoning bio-engineering field. That’s why Southeast’s Department of Agriculture is building a new greenhouse complex, the first phase of which is expected to be completed when the fall 2004 semester begins.

The 11,000-square-foot facility is being built on a six-acre plot west of the University’s new softball fields at Bertling and Sprigg, with access from Bertling. The new greenhouse will double the size of the current one off New Madrid west of the Student Recreation Center. The new state-of-the-art greenhouse facility is expected to give students experience by being the producer, from planting to sales. 

“Experiential learning is number one as far as we are concerned,” said Dr. Wesley Mueller, chair of Southeast’s Department of Agriculture.

The complex also will feature an 1,800-square-foot head house or work facility, which will serve as a preparation area for mixing soil and sterilizing pots. The head house will serve as a retail operation and provide much-needed storage space.

Currently the retail and the preparation area for mixing soil are in cramped quarters just inside the front door of the greenhouse off New Madrid.

An expanded greenhouse has been in the plans for a couple of years in response to a surge in interest in plant life science and bio-engineering, according to University officials.

Mueller says, in the near future, the new greenhouse will collaborate with the University’s new Innovation Center and that biotech companies likely will use a third of the facility for research purposes. Southeast students, in turn, will get hands on experience with research and genetic engineering and, perhaps, with tests on plants such as tobacco in an attempt to harvest protein for such things as cancer drugs, he said. Students also will be able to work on growing pest-resistant crops and get involved with the University’s rice breeding efforts on a year-round basis.

“Students with this type of experience will be very marketable upon graduation,” Mueller said. “Bio-engineering is an emerging market for students.” 

He says plant life science and horticulture programs are expanding because of increased student interest and the increasing importance of the industry to Missouri. The Danforth Center and Monsanto in St. Louis currently operate similar research greenhouses. The research aspect of Southeast’s new greenhouse will dovetail nicely with the incubator component of the University’s new Innovation Center, Mueller said, as startup biotech companies begin to take root in Southeast Missouri.

“We will be looking at cooperative research efforts with the Delta Center in Portageville, Southwest Missouri State University, UM Rolla  and private companies,” Mueller said.

Nip Kelley Equipment Co. currently is grading the site in preparation for installing utilities and drainage basins, Mueller said. Concrete will be poured and steel will begin going up in mid-July, he said, with the installation of a pre-fabricated glass surface to follow. The greenhouse is expected to open in August, and some horticulture labs and outdoor activities will be offered there during the fall semester.

The second phase of the project, which could begin in two to three years, calls for building a classroom laboratory building with a bio-tech lab where classes will be taught. In the future, there will be an arboretum, walkways and turf management facilities.

Mueller says the horticulture program is expanding into turf management and landscaping as employment opportunities are growing for individuals with experience in turf maintenance for golf course greens and fairways, demonstration gardens, walking trails, and commercial and residential landscaping. Eventually, the new horticulture complex also could become a demonstration site for retaining walls, fencing, hedge rows, and other such common landscape features.

“We see a great emerging market in these areas,” he said, adding the department has hired a new faculty member, Dr. James McCrimmon, whose expertise is in turf management. “We feel this will be an important part of our program. We see this as a change in direction that will be a great benefit to us as a department and the University.”

With expansion into turf management, Southeast will be the only four-year institution in eastern Missouri offering coursework in this area, Mueller said.

Cost of the first phase of the greenhouse project is $750,000 and is being financed with a $200,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority, private donations and funds from the Department of Agriculture and School of Polytechnic Studies. Mueller says all funding for the first phase is in place. Fund raising for the second phase of the project, estimated at $1.5 million, continues.

The University’s current greenhouse off New Madrid will continue to operate through the fall semester. At the end of the fall semester, it will cease operations and be razed to make room for the University’s Multi-Modal Transfer Facility project going in at that location.