Friday, July 9, 2010

Eating Green

            For those who would like to enjoy a meal made with the highest quality ingredients while supporting sustainable agriculture as well as your local economy, look no further than the University of Illinois College of ACES very own Bevier Cafe!
            The Cafe is operated by students in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Students in the Quantity Food Preparation and Service course (FSHN 340) have two hours of classroom instruction and ten hours of lab work in the Cafe every week for fifteen weeks. During this time, students are required to both staff and manage the restaurant.
            Every day, Chef Jean-Louis Ledent and his students serve up four entrees, including one which is made primarily with local ingredients. Not everything in the dish is necessarily local, due to some ingredients such as olive oil not being produced locally, explains Ledent. The main ingredient and majority of the dish,however, is from a local farm.
            For Chef Ledent, the primary incentive for buying locally when possible is the unsurpassable quality, but Ledent also cites supporting a more sustainable form of agriculture and supporting the local economy as other important benefits.
            The process also provides students with a different perspective. “When they see our regular suppliers coming with their big trucks at the loading docks, with cases and cases of stuff, it's one thing. But when they see the farmers themselves with one or two bags of produce from their own fields, and they're not perfectly clean or all the same size...I think that's a really good experience for the students,” Ledent said. “That's part of the reason that I added that special dish to the menu. When the students are working in a kitchen somewhere, I hope they remember that.”
            The local dish generally costs around 50 cents more than the non-local dishes, but almost always sells better, Ledent said. “The customers have been very receptive to this.”
            Bevier Cafe is entirely self-supporting, and profits from sales are put into repairing or replacing equipment in the kitchen or cafe.
            Chef Ledent earned his culinary degree from the Ecole d’Hotellerie de Liege in Belgium, and taught at the College Saint Francoise d’Assise, a culinary institute in Belgium. He has over two decades of culinary experience.
            For location, menus and hours of operation, please visit the Bevier Cafe website.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sustainable Farm Feeding Students

                    Photo by ConstructionDealMkting
For the past two years, the University of Illinois has been supplementing the fruits and vegetables served in its residence halls with produce grown locally at a student-assisted sustainable farm. In its first year alone, $25,000 worth of produce was sold to the University’s Dining Services.
Due to the utilization of high tunnels, which hold in the sun’s heat in the colder months, the farm’s growing season starts several weeks earlier and ends several weeks later, thereby extending the growing season to nearly ten months of the year.
“The problem that we have is that there's a mismatch between when we produce the most and when the students are here,” said Bruce Branham, faculty advisor for the project and professor at the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences. 
Due to the difference between the academic calendar year and the farm’s peak growing season, the operators have begun looking into a possible partnership with the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department to explore options for preserving excess produce. “Our long-range goal is to become big enough that it really does have a big impact on campus,” Branham said. “We could quickly produce more tomatoes than the campus could use, but preservation is the issue.”
While the project originally set out with the idea that the farm could potentially become profitable, Branham quickly came to the realization that this would be very unlikely. To encourage Dining Services to continue purchasing produce from them, they chose to match the prices of the larger food distributors. “Now that's not really a market-driven approach, because that is a wholesale price,” Branham explained. “If you compare the quality of our tomatoes to the quality of the distributors, there would be a big difference.  When you grow produce locally like this, you're doing it more for direct marketing.  But that's fine with us right now, because the students get better quality produce, and they're the ones who funded the project.”
A profit would be possible through selling the produce at local farmers’ markets, where local foods sell for a premium, but the farm does not want to compete with private growers, Branham explained. “We want to keep it internal to the University.  I don't think we should be out at farmers’ markets selling against people who have to pay for their own land and supplies.”
While the farm was largely established as a more sustainable and environmentally responsible means of providing produce for students, Branham states he would like to see it become much more. “We want the farm to be more than just produce production for the dining halls.  We want it to really be part of the University mission of teaching research.  So we hope to have classes that become involved in the farm.”
In addition to being sustainable and providing College of ACES students with hands-on research experience, growing the produce locally also helps to bolster the local economy through providing local jobs and keeping money within the community.
The farm, located southeast of Windsor and Lincoln Avenue, is funded by the Student Sustainability Committee.  It is staffed by a fulltime farm manager, two student interns, a student halftime worker, and numerous volunteers.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What do algae and manure have in common?

                    Photo by Jere-me
Both are being explored as renewable sources of crude oil by researchers at the University of Illinois.
                Yuanghui Zhang, professor and biological engineer at the U of I, headed the research, which initially began simply as an investigation into waste management methods for hog farmers but opened an entirely new market.
                “We started this project fourteen years ago, and it started as a project to treat swine manure.” Zhang said.  “This was just one way of treating the manure.”
                The system uses a thermo chemical conversion, or TCC, to convert the organic compounds into oil and gas.  This process consists of applying heat to the manure in a pressurized enclosure, which causes the rearrangement of the molecules, thus changing the composition of the matter.
                This results in a crude oil which, once refined, has the same properties as traditional oil and can be used to make any number of petroleum based products, including plastics and transportation fuels.  “This is a crude oil, not an alcohol, not ethanol, not biodiesel,” Zhang said.
                A key component in the method developed by Zhang and his colleagues is markedly different from conventional TCC processes in that it requires neither a catalyst nor the manure to be pre-dried.
                While the process does require a fuel source to heat the organic compounds and convert them into oil, Zhang said that the energy which the process yields is three times greater than the energy input.  Additionally, in his research Zhang was able to achieve a 70 percent conversion rate of manure to oil, or a 50 percent conversion rate to refined oil; however Zhang said that he anticipates that an even greater conversion rate could be achieved with more research into the process.
                However, even at the current rates, this would add a significant amount of profit for hog producers, as well as provide a means of waste management.
                “Our research has now also expanded from swine manure to human waste,” Zhang said.  “And we are also now doing research on using the waste water, animal waste and human, to grow algae, and then convert the algae into crude oil.”
                Growing the algae on the waste water is dual purposed, as not only is it very rich in nutrients, but the waste water needs to be cleaned anyways and the algae does this.
                The process would also be carbon neutral, Zhang said.  “When you extract the energy from the biowaste, the remaining nutrients and CO2 are absorbed by the algae.  Then we convert that algae into more oil.”

Monday, June 7, 2010

Prairie Power

  Photo by jborevit  
Researchers at the University of Illinois are working on advancing a sustainable method of creating energy from land which was previously unused or underused.
                The research, headed by assistant professor D.K. Lee, is investigating how grasses native to Illinois can be used as a source of renewable energy, while providing a boost to Illinois agriculture.
                Switchgrass, a variety of perennial grass native to Illinois, has shown to be much less sensitive to both water and soil stress than traditional crops such as corn and soybeans, and can therefore be grown with high yields in land which would be considered to be of marginal quality, such as that on an incline where most crops would be washed away due to a shallow root system.  In this case, the benefits of planting switchgrass in place of annual crops would include the promotion of soil and water conservation, in addition to a higher yield crop.
                Furthermore, perennial grasses such as switchgrass require much less time and far fewer resources to maintain in comparison to traditional production crops.  As a perennial, only a single planting and an initial application of fertilizer is needed for the crop to continue to keep coming up year after year, and as long as the entire above-ground biomass of the plant is harvested, there is no need to burn off the crop after harvest.
                Perennial grasses also can be used to form efficient buffer zones between traditional crop fields and waterways, preventing the runoff of chemicals and topsoil.
                As with other forms of biomass, switchgrass can also be used in place of coal in coal-burning power plants.  Furthermore, these facilities are now facing stiffer government regulations requiring reduced emissions, which can be accomplished through switching to biomass, or by simply burning biomass along with the coal.  Most any organic matter can be used for this purpose.  However, switchgrass has been found to be among the most efficient sources, as it burns at a higher BTU, or British thermal unit, than biomasses such as lawn clippings.
                In addition to its use as a source of renewable energy, switchgrass also assists in soil sequestration, thereby pulling carbon from the air into the ground.  In a recent ACES publication entitled ACES Afield, Lee explained this process stating “switchgrass builds a large root mass underground and is able to store carbon in its roots.  Not only does it reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the air, but it also increases the soil’s organic carbon, which increases its organic matter and improves soil quality.  We lose a lot of organic carbon from the soil in our agricultural process.  This helps us replace what we use.”