This article was written by Laura Loffredo, Director of Development, and appears in our forthcoming fall 2011 newsletter. For previous newsletters and annual reports, please click here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011.  That was the day, Ethan Sneesby ‘10 recalls, when the heat index soared past 100 degrees, and he could feel the beads of perspiration rolling down his back.  He looked at his friend and classmate Greg Pereira and said, “Why are we doing this again?”

What Ethan, Greg, and their fellow classmate Mike Badzmierowski were doing was watering tomato plants on the grounds of Saint Raphael Academy.  But not just any tomato plants. . .these plants were being carefully tended as part of a “going green” science experiment that the three recent graduates had devised, and for which they received a grant from the US Department of Agriculture through the RI Resource, Conservation and Development Council (RI RC&D).

The purpose of the experiment is to test whether alternative planting materials could be used to help plants retain water, thus requiring less frequent watering, and therefore helping to conserve more of this precious natural resource.  The boys settled on the idea of using “secondary wool” as the planting medium.  Secondary wool is the wool that is not suitable for use in clothing or blankets, but is ‘left over’ after a sheep is sheared.   The RI RC&D had made the grant money available to encourage just such research.

So how do three kids in the rather urban setting of Pawtucket come by secondary wool?  No problem!  SRA Math teacher Tom Soucar ’90 just happens to be a scholar and a gentleman farmer.  With secondary wool from Mr. Soucar’s sheep, Ethan, Greg & Mike were able to conduct their experiment.  Beginning in June, the three set up a schedule to ensure that the plants would be watered daily and measured for progress weekly.  With a control group of six plants in ordinary potting soil, the boys then planted 24 additional plants, with varying degrees of secondary wool added to the mix.  At the end of the season, they will review their data on amounts of water consumed and the growth of the plants and make a report to the USDA.

“This is just an awesome opportunity,” said Ethan, who will be studying Environmental Science and Management at the University of Rhode Island beginning this fall.  “There aren’t too many high school students who can enter a university science program having already conducted government-funded research,” he added.  “We’re really excited to have the chance.”  Mike is also headed to URI, where he will study Earth Sciences, and Greg, who was valedictorian for the Class of 2011, will attend Providence College.  Greg is studying Biology and eventually hopes to be involved in research into the impact of environmental changes on animal populations.

“We’re so impressed with the work that Greg, Mike and Ethan have undertaken,” said Tom Soucar.  “Not only did they design the experiment themselves, they also committed to returning to school every day over the summer to tend the plants and take measurements.  That’s a pretty good indication of how committed they each are to environmental science.”

When the growing season is over, Greg, Mike & Ethan plan to donate whatever fruit is harvested to the soup kitchen at Holy Family Church, where SRA students have been volunteering for many years.

Additionally, an article about the Wool Mulch Project has been written for URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) website, the text of which we have posted here with permission.

Wool waste could be another value-added product

By RUDI HEMPE, CELSnews Editor

First there was Rhody Fresh, the cooperative that put locally-produced milk and cream in supermarkets all over the state.

And taking a cue from such a good idea to promote local products, there evolved other ventures—Rhody Warm Wool Blankets, Rhody Livestock, Rhody Native Plants and now—Rhody Mulch.

Mulch? Yup.

It seems that the project that produces fine blankets made from the wool that is produced by hundreds of sheep throughout the Ocean State has also resulted in a waste product—wool that is too dirty, too matted, too unsuitable for manufacture into high quality blankets.

And so conservation officials in the state have come up with a potential solution—using waste wool as a mulch that can keep down weeds and help to irrigate potted plants.

According to Gerard Bertrand, executive director of the RI Rural Development Council, an organization whose role is to support small business development in agriculture and other similar endeavors, said the whole idea started when some surplus wool, not suitable for the blanket project, was given to the Southside Community Land Trust. The land trust is a highly successful and quite visible operation that helps people in the Providence urban area and includes a number of small farmers. The farmers took the wool and used it in their vegetable beds to reduce weeds.

Chris Modisette, USDA-NRCS Representative and, Coordinator of the RI Resource Conservation and Development Area, heard about it and suggested to Bertrand that the waste wool just might become another product and that a grant might be a possible avenue. He suggested the idea to the RI Sheep Cooperative.  They agreed, and the RI RC&D applied for and received a USDA-RD grant for the project.

Discussion ensued. Susan Charlwood, a member of the sheep cooperative and who heads up this “secondary wool project” was chatting with Bertrand one day over who could step forward to take on a feasibility grant. Charlwood’s son-in-law, Thomas Soucar, a math teacher at St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, heard about it. “I saw it as a great way to get students involved in a real world assignment and so I committed St. Raphael Academy to complete the research,” explained Soucar.

The grant allowed them to explore two avenues—development of wool mulch in the residential realm i.e. gardeners—and in the commercial area i.e. garden centers, greenhouses and perhaps farms.

In the process it was noted that while there are 125 sheep owners in the state who potentially could be involved, URI’s Peckham Farm is also home to a flock of sheep that could supply secondary wool. There Fred Launer, a CELS lecturer in Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science and Chantelle Marechaux, a FAVS senior majoring in animal science, became involved.

At St. Raphael Academy, teacher Soucar enlisted students in the project including Gregory Perreira, Ethan S. Sneesby and Mike Badzmierowski, all seniors who graduated in June. (Ethan and Mike are entering URI in the fall and Gregory is headed for Providence College).

They devised a trial method of using two five-gallon pails inserted into each other with the innermost one having a big hole in the bottom. In this bottom pail, the wool mulch was placed. A tomato plant was placed in the pail with the hole so it could draw moisture from the wool. They used a potting mix incorporated with fertilizer and the tomatoes grew like Topsy.  The students devised four different trial configurations of pails, including types of wool (dirty and clean, in pads and loose) and different placements of wool within the pails plus the control plants. The pails were put outside on the school grounds and have been drawing quite a few stares from passersby.

The students reported the plants in the special pails with the mulch seem to need less water than the controls. They also noted that water beaded up on the wool and was not absorbed, making it readily available to the plants. This was explained that while some of the wool was cleaned prior to the experiment, it was prepared at a Connecticut facility using an organic soap  (made in  Providence, noted Bertrand) and hence the lanolin, the natural oil on wool, was left largely intact.

Also involved in the project is Shannon Brawley, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association, headquartered at East Farm, who enlisted the cooperation of a few growers in the South County area, Stewart Nursery, Schartner Farms, Clark Farms and The Farmer’s Daughter to take part in the trials. The potential for the use of the wool in the commercial area, she said, will probably be in containers and greenhouses rather than in the fields. Eventually, there will be demonstrations at the commercial sites, she said.

While the wool project is still in its infancy, indications are that a waste product will somehow emerge as another conservation option for the horticultural industry.

 

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