Sustainability at Slippery Rock

Contract foodservice provider AVI Fresh follows its compost from kitchen to farm

As I drove up Harmony Road on the perimeter of the Slippery Rock University campus, I couldn't help but feel like Martin Sheen approaching the mysterious jungle compound of Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now."

[image-nocss] The snow was falling heavily and the first 2 feet of the Macoskey Center barn were fully obscured as I pulled into the small parking lot. The barn was constructed by Slippery Rock University (SRU) as part of the Robert A. Macoskey Center for Sustainable Systems Education and Research in the mid-1990s, and it has endured many harsh Pennsylvania winters. It looked tattered and weather-beaten yet sturdy and reminded me of how scars imbue a fighter's face with strength.

Although the company I work for, AVI Fresh, the university's food and hospitality service provider, implements a variety of sustainability initiatives for its accounts, as I stood before the barn in my pressed suit, tie and leather gloves, I was acutely aware of my conspicuous appearance.

My purpose for visiting The Macoskey Center, also in Slippery Rock, Pa., was to meet Thomas Reynolds, the center's director, and to learn about the precise nature of this unique entity at SRU. I had heard many descriptions of the center: a working farm, a model of sustainable practices, a satellite classroom for the school's Sustainable Systems Masters program and a renewable-energy power plant. I needed clarification.

I met Thomas in a small, bare office appointed with plain wooden walls and furniture. A small radio by an icy window played unfamiliar but pleasant rock music as we made our introductions and sat down at opposite sides of his desk. I sensed some skepticism as I wiped snow off my laptop bag and pulled out my computer to take notes.

I asked about the primary connection between the Macoskey Center and AVI Fresh: 15 barrels of pepper stems, onion ends and discarded lettuce from our culinary operations that we deliver to the center each week. He explained that the organic material that we provide, along with leaves dropped off each fall by the town, were laid out in 50-feet-long-by-6-feet-wide windrows, aerated by a compost-turning tractor, and eventually used as a soil amendment in the center's community garden project. Recognizing an opportunity to establish credibility as an experienced member of the sustainability movement, I asked if they used a plastic tarp to expedite the decomposition process.

"No, we just leave it there," he said.

He could see I was perplexed, so he explained the philosophy of The Macoskey Center: to demonstrate efficient, sustainable processes on campus, and to inspire new ways of thinking about our relationship with the earth.

The center's property encompasses 83 acres, but only 3 are actively cultivated. Much of the existing acreage is being left alone to develop hardwood forests. The areas that are actively cultivated are farmed, cleared for hiking trails, or are used to house energy installations. (A wind turbine and a small collection of photovoltaic cells produce enough energy to irrigate and power the greenhouse and provide 30% of the required electricity for the barn and education center.)

Students and Slippery Rock residents are all encouraged to visit, whether they want to explore the property, farm their own plot (available for a nominal fee to anyone without farmable land in the community) or to participate in one of the many sustainability programs scheduled throughout the year.

One of the more popular demonstrations is a mobile operation called the "gypsy chicken wagon." The wagon is a mobile coop that transports chickens to various locations around the center's property, where they are released within a small, fenced-in area to feed.

Thomas explained that pastured chickens, which are allowed to express their fundamental objectives of flying, clawing for seeds and scampering around, yield higher-quality meat and eggs and can cost 30% less to feed when raised on a high-quality pasture. In addition, eggs from pastured chickens typically contain half the cholesterol and twice the vitamin E and folic acid of a factory-farmed egg.

Here he paused for effect.

"Have you ever seen the yolk from a pastured chicken's egg? It's a completely different color; it's a vibrant, almost neon yellow, and the yolk won't break when you flip it to cook it over-easy.

"This speaks to one of the common misconceptions about sustainability," he continued, "that it's a 'hippie' notion based on an impractical philosophy. Sustainability is smart design. It's efficiency."

When I asked about the relationship between The Macoskey Center and SRU, Thomas explained that the center is primarily a resource for the university, to be used by students and faculty for research and the development and execution of sustainability projects. While it runs many internally developed programs and projects for demonstrative purposes, the center's activities are all closely tied to the university and its objectives.

A recent project that the center developed directly with the university was a living-roof bus-stop shelter. This project saved the school money on material expenses while demonstrating how design and sustainability can be easily and effectively integrated within a heavily populated, suburban environment.

The idea for the shelter came about when the Student Government Association asked for a concept to promote the public transportation system on campus. Thomas and his Macoskey crew sourced building materials for the shelter from discarded wood, stone and other materials from existing construction projects on campus, and topped the roof with drought-resistant, perennial vegetation called sedum. The living roof system absorbs the majority of the storm-water surge that would normally roll off the building during heavy rain.

There are many other sustainability demonstrations run by The Macoskey Center around the SRU campus and in the community, such as its composting toilet and its participation in the producer-only farmers' market. Each Macoskey project must pass a simple test in order to be green-lighted: Does this produce more than it costs, and does it promote sustainable design?

A trained architect, Thomas employs design and demonstration to promote sustainability while creating real amenities for the Slippery Rock community. To this end, The Macoskey Center is not only a resource for the Slippery Rock University community, but it's also a living illustration of the versatility and pragmatism of sustainable practices.