National Science Foundation grant explores links between clean energy and agriculture

Last modified: Tuesday, December 09, 2014

HOLYOKE — Kate Maiolatesi is batting three-for-three in winning National Science Foundation grants to expand the Sustainability Studies Program she founded and directs at Holyoke Community College.

Her latest is an $810,000 injection of cash to branch out from energy to her real passion, which is agriculture. The money will be used to create cross-campus programs among HCC, the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College.

Her program, which she founded in 2005, is growing with the help of two previous NSF grants, she said. “It’s just more fun if you have outside funding because you can do more things.”

With the new grant she wants to show how clean energy and agriculture go together. “Farmers are doing the clean energy work because they are the ones who understand the importance of it,” said Maiolatesi.

The grant will pay to develop a six-week course for next summer that will meet on each of the three campuses for two weeks. Students from all three schools will not have to pay for the course, but they will receive college credit. Besides paying faculty, the grant will cover paid internships for students to work with agriculturally oriented businesses in the area.

“I think one of the reasons we got the grant is that we have a state university, a community college, and a private college all involved in the project,” said Maiolatesi.

Her collaborators are John Gerber, director of the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture, and Beth Hooker, director of Food, Farm and Sustainability at Hampshire College.

Each of the institutions will get to make some improvements to support teaching sustainable agriculture.

UMass will build a micro-farm greenhouse designed to extend the growing season as far into the winter as possible. The structure, for which $30,000 is budgeted, will be part of the Agricultural Learning Center on a 40-acre field off North Pleasant Street in Amherst, within walking distance of the main campus.

Amanda Brown, who will manage the new structure, said, “We want to create a greenhouse that is very low energy.” Fans, vents and louvers will be “completely powered by a solar panel.” Heat in the colder months will be distributed through underground tubing, the idea being to “warm the soil not the air.”

The chance to use this kind of technology designed to get the earliest possible harvest will give students a leg up in the job market. “They can take that to an employer and say, ‘Oh sure, I’ve used a bottom heat system before and I understand the plant requirements — maximum and minimum temperatures — and how to work with reduced daylight,’ ” said Brown.

Clean energy skills

Maiolatesi said getting grants to teach clean energy skills are easier to obtain. “There’s all kinds of new companies doing things like solar, wind and geothermal, so that’s where more of the money is.”

But she sees an increasing demand for local farmers as the economy shifts based on scarcer energy as well as changing weather and dietary patterns.

“With the local and organic food movements there is a lot more interest in doing things that involve eating well,” said Maiolatesi. “There are a lot of jobs, but they are not traditional high-paying jobs. They are jobs linked to an agricultural-based lifestyle.”

Hampshire College will receive about $150,000 of the grant to support faculty salaries and for projects related to the program. This will include converting an antique Allis-Chalmers Model G tractor from gasoline to electric power by installing a battery that will be charged with solar panels on the roof of a barn.

Hooker said students will also build mobile solar-powered refrigeration units. “Farmers are looking for innovative ways to refrigerate their fruits and vegetables.”

In addition to bring students from three different kinds of institutions together, Maiolatesi believes her project was funded because the National Science Foundation does not receive many proposals for education related to small-scale agriculture. “We had already developed the energy part of things, so it made sense to move it farther than that,” she said.

The project meets another NSF priority, which is to create paths that lead students in community colleges to continue their education in four-year institutions. “They liked the idea of the partnership,” said Maiolatesi.

Gerber, who serves as a student adviser for HCC students moving onto UMass, said, “It’s a big psychological and cultural leap going to a large institution.” His job “is to help them make that transition” by talking about the kinds of courses and internships they will need for their career path.

Maiolatesi said HCC has a small learning garden and the grant will provide for improved irrigation using solar pumps and a rainwater collection system that is already in place.

Maiolatesi said she is motivated to teach sustainable agriculture because food security will become a more important issue as climate change alters patterns of crop growth and distribution.

One of her other projects is consulting with a working group on climate change at Harvard University. “Scientists who have been doing this forever are freaked out. They say it’s so much worse than everybody thinks it’s going to be,” she said. “We’ve got to start training the next generation to grow food.”

Sustainability Studies at HCC includes three degree tracks as well as five certificates in subjects such as solar, wind and geothermal energy. The new funding will help build on what the program has already achieved.

“We are really lucky to be getting money to help with these projects because there really isn’t another way to do it,” said Maiolatesi. “The fact that the NSF believes that what we are doing is useful is just wonderful.”

Eric Goldscheider can be reached at


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