Conservation, Collaboration Grow in ATRC Greenhouses
Many longtime Chico area residents remember the years when the greenhouses at the University Farm (officially The Paul L. Byrne Agricultural Teaching and Research Center or ATRC) were bursting with poinsettias during the winter holiday season. Because poinsettia sales have ceased, few know the greenhouses are once again teeming with plant life, said greenhouse manager Mark Leigh. And the results of his efforts these days are now more permanent than a holiday centerpiece.
Standing among the thirty thousand young elderberry plants currently under his care, Leigh, who graduated from CSU, Chico in 1985 with a degree in horticulture, explained the new role of the greenhouses at the ATRC. Leigh was managing the greenhouses and propagating ornamental plants for sale to the public in the early 1990s when the Ornamental Horticulture option was discontinued due to budget cuts in 1992–1993. The greenhouses were empty for two years.
In 1995, the Nature Conservancy approached Leigh and the College of Agriculture with a project: grow native plants in the ARTC greenhouses from seeds provided by the conservancy. When the plants were old enough for transplant, the conservancy delivered them to farmers who were contracted to plant them in areas near the Sacramento River that had been turned into farmland years ago.
The native plants control erosion and flooding along the river and restore habitat for animals and migratory birds. Farmers along the river receive payment for planting and tending the native plants on their property. And the buffer zone along the river slows down floodwaters and prevents damage to the farmers’ adjacent crops and orchards.
The project was an unmitigated success, creating a unique working collaboration between conservationists and farmers and the University. “It was so successful that we are still doing it,” said Leigh.
Under Leigh’s supervision—and with the help of student assistants, interns, and volunteers—the greenhouses now host about seventy thousand native plant seedlings of various species, including Oregon ash, wild rose, and oak. Over the past 12 years, the ATRC has had contracts with the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and California State Parks to grow more than 400,000 native plants for various habitat restoration projects.
The farm now boasts a new state-of-the-art propagation house and greenhouse that serve as teaching grounds for the students working there. “Getting contracts enabled us to put money back into the College of Agriculture,” said Leigh. “It allowed us to put money back into the propagation unit, to upgrade it for teaching. It’s kind of nice. It serves a triple purpose: The ATRC makes money doing this, we provide an academic program in horticulture emphasizing sustainable practices, and farmers and the environment benefit.
Most of the students Leigh works with are from the College of Agriculture or the Department of Biological Sciences. They learn to grow plants from seed and care for them as seedlings. The basics of propagation extend to other plants, not just natives bound for habitat restoration projects. The experience “makes students more marketable,” said Leigh, giving them skills that translate to careers in nursery work or teaching.
But native plants are all genetically different from each other—unlike a packet of genetically identical seeds that all grow pretty much the same way. “You have to baby them a little bit,” said Leigh. The students under his supervision figure out how to treat each type of seed and plant for maximum production.
The benefits go beyond skill building: “For the College of Ag. students, this is really nice because it isn’t maybe what they would consider traditional agriculture and it gets them networking with groups like the Nature Conservancy and the biology department,” said Leigh. And the biology majors “get a lot of practical hands-on experience they wouldn’t get in a lab situation.”
Leigh relishes the chance to show students the potential for cooperation between groups that historically have been at odds: “There are always going to be differences [between environmentalists and agriculture] but I think part of that is just fear of the unknown,…
These projects have, for the past 12 years, gone a long way to fostering a better understanding between diverse groups working toward a common goal.