UMPI officials, community farmers celebrate opening of new research greenhouse

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The University of Maine at Presque Isle is the home of  a new teaching and research greenhouse that will prepare students for real-life work experiences within the agricultural and agribusiness fields.

Hundreds of UMPI faculty and staff members, students, municipal leaders, local farmers and agricultural business professionals gathered outside Gentile Hall on Friday afternoon, Sept. 27, for the unveiling of the Zillman Family Greenhouse. The 2,400-square-foot greenhouse, funded through $935,000 of donations, was completed recently after five months of construction by local PNM Construction.

Jim Dwyer, who spent 38 years as a crop specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, is the new Dr. Robert Vinton Akeley Chair of Agricultural Science and Agribusiness. UMPI established the permanent faculty position after Mary Akeley Smith, daughter of the late Aroostook County potato breeder Robert Vinton Akeley, donated $1 million to the agricultural science and agribusiness program.

The greenhouse features LED grow light systems, water and ventilation systems, classroom lab space, Dwyer’s office and two climate-controlled rooms for agricultural research. Dwyer noted that UMPI is now situated to provide students with hands-on research projects and classes that introduce them to the local agricultural world.

UMPI President Ray Rice (left) unveils the sign for the new Zillman Family Greenhouse with former UMPI president Don Zillman and his wife Linda.
(Staff photo/Melissa Lizotte)

“We’re not only going to be able to teach students about greenhouse management and plant science, but also give crop demonstrations and work with the agricultural community,” Dwyer said.

Around 20 students are involved in the agriculture program, be they agricultural science and agribusiness majors or minors or students from other programs such as business or environmental science who want to take advantage of research opportunities.

Peter Baldwin, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, is an UMPI sophomore majoring in agricultural science and agribusiness. After graduating he hopes to remain in Aroostook County and eventually start his own greenhouse nursery for plants and potatoes.

“Having the greenhouse here will allow us to conduct experiments year-round, even in winter,” Baldwin said. “It will expand upon what we can learn.”

The Zillman Family Greenhouse is named after former UMPI president Don Zillman and his wife Linda, who were early donors to the project. Before the official ribbon cutting, the Zillmans spoke about the importance of giving back to the local farming community — people they came to know during their time in Presque Isle.

Linda Zillman recalled visiting Smith Farms, a producer of broccoli and other crops, in Presque Isle in 2006 after her husband became UMPI president. She was amazed at the huge warehouses used to store broccoli and the technology that helped track each box to be shipped to stores. 

UMPI President Ray Rice (left), Mary Akeley Smith, Linda Zillman, former UMPI president Don Zillman, Don Flannery, president of the Maine Potato Board, and Erica McCrum, foundation officer for the Aroostook County fund of the Maine Community Foundation, cut the ribbon during a ceremony marking the opening of UMPI’s new Zillman Family Greenhouse on Friday, Sept. 27.
(Staff photo/Melissa Lizotte)

“The warehouses were stacked full with broccoli cases and there were computers used to track exactly where the crops were growing,” Linda Zillman said.

Don Zillman said that keeping up with the latest technology in agriculture will be one of the goals of UMPI’s new program. Thanks to Smith’s financial gift, UMPI purchased a new John Deere tractor that includes a seat for student trainees and GPS software. Students and faculty will also use a new drone to take aerial photographs during research projects.

“Every student that spends time here can appreciate the value of the agricultural work being done in Aroostook County,” Don Zillman said. 

Jim Dwyer, UMPI’s Dr. Robert Vinton Akeley Chair of Agricultural Science and Agribusiness, speaks during a ceremony to mark the official beginnings of UMPI’s new Zillman Family Greenhouse on Friday.
(Staff photo/Melissa Lizotte)

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