Faculty in Focus
by Elizabeth Renfro | Photography Beiron Andersson
Meet three California State University, Chico professors whose research produces a wide range of results (think Frisbees, fuel, and school cafeteria cuisine), but whose efforts all reflect a deep and a pragmatic concern for both the planet and people’s livelihoods.
These faculty are dedicated to helping students and the public understand the possibilities as well as the complexities of sustainability. Too often, for example, people don’t realize it’s not a simplistic case of “Big Ag vs. Small Ag,” explains Professor Jacob Brimlow, or, says Professor Joe Greene, of plastic being utterly evil.
The fact that student involvement is central in these professors’ work is no surprise. “Our students drive everything we do,” says Professor Lisa Ott. “We do what we can to tailor our students’ experiences to what they will need for their chosen paths.” That the paths these professors invite their students to explore involve serious, playful, rigorous, creative, practical, and innovative research isn’t just icing on the academic cake. It’s what higher education is all about.
Since his return to CSU, Chico as a faculty member, Jacob Brimlow (BA, Economics, ’98) has united his interests in practical environmental stewardship and supporting the heart of our food chain—farmers and ranchers. “Consumers are increasingly interested in knowing who grew what they’re eating and how it was produced, and this is creating new opportunities for producers,” the agriculture professor says. Too often, however, the necessary infrastructure for local food markets is lacking. A local food hub, Brimlow believes, can address this need, helping to conserve farmland and support the local economy by keeping farmers farming.
How—and why—did you focus on local food systems?
During my graduate work at North Carolina State University, I studied how economics and the environment interact in agriculture. When I returned to Chico to join a small, interdisciplinary college at a university with a teaching emphasis, my research naturally became more applied and locally focused.
In 2011, Noelle Ferdon (BA, Political Science, ’00), director of Local Food Systems at the Northern California Regional Land Trust, contacted me. Over several years, Noelle had been hearing that growers wanted increased access to local food markets, and she’d been working to start a regional food hub. While they can take many different forms, most food hubs facilitate local food sales by providing services such as storage, processing, distribution, aggregation, and/or marketing services.
I am an economist, after all, so the more I thought about local food systems, the more I thought about potential markets and what was getting in the way. More than 3,000 of the 5,000-plus farms in Butte, Glenn, and Tehama Counties are categorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as small- or medium-sized. These are the farms that can benefit most from increased market opportunities in local food. Beyond meeting increasing consumer demand, robust local food systems have been shown to increase grower profitability, improve local and regional economic development outcomes, and combat food insecurity.
Noelle and I—supported by crucial local partners like the CSU, Chico Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion and 3CORE—have collaborated on several projects gathering data to assess our region’s local food barriers (e.g., cold storage, food safety) and to explore potential solutions. Our findings suggest the North Valley Food Hub (NVFH) we’re launching will remove key barriers in the local food system.
Students have been involved from the beginning, too. In Introduction to Agricultural Business 101, my students and I discuss the economics of the food system and why local food systems have become such a hot topic (the 2014 Farm Bill allocates unprecedented amounts of government support to developing them). Our discussions involve the local data we’ve collected—and “we” here includes both graduate and undergraduate students who’ve helped design surveys, interview growers, and conduct focus groups. My discussions and work with students are an invaluable part of my research.
What—and who—will the North Valley Food Hub involve?
We work mostly with small- and medium-sized growers, focusing on what are called “intermediated” food markets: markets where food passes through at least one intermediary, such as a school district, hospital, or restaurant, before making it to the end consumer. Direct-to-consumer markets (like farmers’ markets) are the most recognizable face of local food, but according to a USDA survey, about 80 percent of the $4.8 billion in local food sales in 2008 involved intermediated markets.
The producer survey we are conducting shows it’s costly for buyers and growers to find each other, write contracts, and set and enforce standards of product quality and safety, so NVFH addresses these issues. Before the end of 2014, we plan to have the hub’s online marketplace component running, where member farmers and ranchers will post quantities and prices of foods available and buyers will contract to purchase. Growers will later drop off their products at a central location and receive a single check from NVFH for all the food they’ve sold to any number of purchasers. Buyers will come later that day to pick up what they committed to buy, writing just one check to NVFH.
In the future, the NVFH could serve as the centerpiece of a local food business “cluster” and provide or help coordinate transportation logistics, cool/cold storage, light processing facilities, educational workshops, food safety training/certification, a commercial kitchen, and food waste management—all of which can enhance the competitiveness of businesses linked to the cluster, drive innovation, and stimulate new business.
Do you have a secret ambition?
Several, but if I told you they wouldn’t be secret!
Plastics for the Planet
For many people, plastic has a lot of negative connotations: It’s unnatural, wasteful, and clogging our landfills. But to Joe Greene, professor of sustainable manufacturing and mechanical engineering, plastic is the stuff of which dreams are made. Although his professional life started with conventional petroleum-based plastics, since 1998, Greene has been sharing his expertise and vision of planet-friendly plastics with colleagues and students at CSU, Chico. In the process, he’s helping transform North State agricultural waste like walnut and almond shells into biodegradable picnic utensils and toys, and collaborating with chemistry professor Lisa Ott and Chico students to develop biodiesel fuel from rice production byproducts.
How did you get into this field?
I had graduate training in plastics and went right into my first job at General Motors as a plastics engineer. At GM, I became an expert in that area, but I felt something was missing. I was doing application—developing plastics, designing products, determining uses for plastics in the company—but I wanted to be doing really new work, inventing my own plastics. And I wanted to be actively helping. Now, as a professor at Chico State, I get to do both, helping students and the environment, exploring all kinds of possibilities.
How do you stay excited about plastic?
Everything is brand new! I’m working on stuff that hasn’t been invented yet, new forms of plastic, new uses for plastics that haven’t been tried. So this is all stuff no one’s ever done. Because I’m lucky enough to be where I am—Northern California and Chico State—I’m focused on producing plastic from such Butte County agricultural waste as rice hulls, almond and walnut shells, and straws. But all this can also be translated to the Midwest, with corn and other crops. What I get to do is create products that have a positive impact on the environment, and I get to help students learn about this aspect of engineering—and about giving back.
What’s the student-plastics connection?
Students and I are lucky to be at Chico State because it’s so student-focused and has great labs, including the University’s Polymers Manufacturing Labs [which Greene oversees]. The best part of my job is getting to do research and development projects with students. The students come up with their own proposals and plans, and I help them along the way, from the idea stage to actual product development. This semester, one student team’s goal is to create Chico State license plate holders from recycled and plant-based plastics. Another group is constructing biodegradable plastic skeet targets for sport shooters out of rice and walnut shells, while a third aims to create flying discs for disc golfers out of biodegradable plant-based plastics, so that when a disc is lost, it won’t pollute the environment. What students and I are working on now has tons of applications, tons of uses, and very little negative impact on the planet.
Do you have a secret ambition?
I want to play jazz piano at clubs. I do play piano, so maybe when I’m retired.
Chemistry professor Lisa Ott’s enthusiasm for biodiesel fuels drives both her research and her teaching. Ott joined CSU, Chico’s faculty in 2008 and has already engaged in a number of collaborative research and development projects, including one with engineering colleague Joe Greene [see opposite page] and with colleagues across campus in the Center for Water and the Environment. Her interest in environment-focused research and solutions carries over into—and is energized by—hands-on projects she designs for elementary- through graduate-level students.
How did you get into this field?
I’ve always been interested in environmental issues. At the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, I did postdoctorate research on biofuels. My work at Chico State branched out from there, specifically into biodiesel. I like biodiesel on a number of levels: It’s easy to make (I’ve led workshops with sixth graders making it), you can make it out of a variety of feedstocks, and, if pressed, you can drink it!
What keeps you excited about your work?
My students! I feel like this work gives Chico State students an opportunity to make a measurable impact in the world of alternative fuels. Certainly biofuels are not going to be the single solution to climate change, but they’re a very real part of progress in the correct direction. Students who’ve worked on my projects involving alternative fuels can see how the research they’re doing fits into the bigger picture and that the work is timely and relevant. We all like that. I love introducing students to the world of research—including the idea that neither of us knows what the result of the next experiment will be, that it’s OK for them to take apart that instrument that costs tens of thousands of dollars, that they are now on the same footing as their professors.
In a capstone lab course, I typically have students doing a six-week project on diesel fuels. They make a ton of really great measurements on both biodiesel and petroleum-derived diesel fuel, and many end up surprising themselves about which fuel they think is “better” for the environment. Some who accepted that all bio-derived fuels would always be more environmentally friendly than petroleum fuels are startled when they begin to consider the other environmental and energetic costs involved in producing bio-derived fuels.
In summer we hold a 10-week Chemistry Summer Research Institute, where we have a lot more time to work and think more intensively with our students. We’ve started a High School Scholars program, too, where one student each from Chico High and Pleasant Valley come for five weeks of CSRI and work alongside our Chico State students. That’s been a lot of fun so far—and Chico has some very talented high school students.
Do you have a secret ambition?
I would love to have enough grace, strength, and flexibility to do ballet on pointe.