When you want to change the status quo, what do you do?

If you’re Nat Clarke ’11, you plant salad greens on the roof.

Clarke, a Whitman College biology major and president of Campus Greens, spearheaded an effort this fall to establish a model farm on the Hall of Science’s rooftop greenhouse. His plan was to grow salad greens that could be sold to the campus food service, Bon Appetit, to help increase the volume of local produce in the dining halls.

Clarke’s aspirations will become a reality this spring, as one of the first projects to receive funding from the Sustainability Revolving Loan Fund (SRLF). The fund, proposed in 2007 by Ari van Schilfgaarde ’07, is a $25,000 line of credit that the college allocates for any project that “significantly benefits Whitman’s sustainability efforts by conserving resources and improving efficiency.” Although this is the second year applications have been accepted, it is the first year that projects have been funded.

The fund doesn’t require the college to invest more money year after year, but rather is replenished through the savings that the projects generate. All projects must generate enough savings to pay themselves back within five years. In this way, it embodies the true ideal of sustainability, said Lisa Curtis ’10, Whitman’s sustainability coordinator.

“The word ‘sustainability’ gets tossed around a lot but I think that the SRLF embodies true sustainability, both in the environmental and the economic sense,” she said.

The SRLF has also funded a proposal from Tyler Harvey ’10 to install 200 low-flow aerators – enough to replace all aerators in on-campus buildings. The new aerators are much more efficient – using four to five times less water per minute than the existing design – and each aerator only costs $1.50 plus shipping and tax.  Harvey expects the savings will pay back the $350 he was allotted within four months.

A third proposal, submitted by Karen Smith, who oversees the chemistry stockroom and facilities, would recycle the chemistry department’s hazardous waste on-site, and is also likely to receive funding contingent on revisions.
Clarke’s project received $800: $500 for the creation of growing systems –
an expense which is also being offset by Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) and Campus Greens funds – and $300 for maintenance and development, pending further explanation of what this entails.

 Growing trays will be built next semester and then set up in the 160 square feet of the 400-square-foot greenhouse that the biology department has allocated for this project. Clarke said he is excited about the possibilities that a controlled environment offers.

 “Because the temperature and light are maintained consistently throughout the winter, you can grow a harvest in four weeks, and then through a rotation, you can have a harvest every single week,” he said.

Beginning next semester, Clarke is aiming for a “steady supply” of three pounds weekly, which he hopes will help Bon Appetit raise the percentage of local produce they offer from eight percent to 20 percent. “Our Model Farm Project not only will help Bon Appetit reach that goal but will demonstrate to the college that the students are interested in and passionate about local produce and the environmental benefits of locally grown food,” said Natalie Jamerson ’13, who has been closely involved with the Model Farm Project and will be joining Zoe Pehrson ’13 in maintaining the greenhouse as part of an Environmental Studies Internship. The SRLF has helped both Clarke and Harvey expand upon long-standing work in sustainability. Harvey has been invested in water rights issues and water use on campus since his sophomore year, when he led a water campaign that distributed flyers and e-mails raising awareness, and also installed a trial set of 56 low-flow aerators in Jewett, Anderson and Lyman Halls.

Clarke’s greenhouse farm is not only the initial phase of a larger farm project, but also the realization of a long-standing dream for edible landscaping across campus. This dream stemmed from Clarke’s involvement with the student organic garden during his first year at Whitman. “I was motivated by the idea that by expanding it creatively on campus in some sort of ‘farm,’ that we could produce more, benefit more people with it, and actually get that food to Bon Appetit,” Clarke said.

The evidence of Clarke’s efforts reaches far beyond the greenhouse. In the spring of 2010, Clarke hopes to reap a harvest of about 25 pounds of asparagus from the 90 asparagus crowns he planted by the amphitheater on campus last year, which may also be sold to Bon Appetit to subsidize the farm project if they are of high enough quality. Clarke’s work also has enriched the Whitman grounds with rhubarb, perennial edible flowers, chokecherry bushes, currants, and 21 blueberry plants.

As much as the fund is driven by student innovation, it is also the product of a college that is open to new ideas. “I think it is amazing that Whitman is even letting us do this,” Clarke said. “How many schools would let you rip up the lawn to plant asparagus, or grow lettuce on top of the science building? It's fantastic,” he said.

Curtis hopes enthusiasm about the fund will continue to grow. “I think it would be great to get to a point where we have so many green projects that we have to ask the trustees to approve more money,” Curtis said.

— Eleanor Ellis ’13