Team keeps research greenhouses growing through closure

Jeff Witkowski in greenhouse
Craig Chandler | University Communication
Jeff Witkowski, greenhouse manager for Agricultural Research Division, holds a couple of his favorite specimens in the East Campus “jungle.” The greenhouse, which is filled with tropical plants, a banana tree and succulents, is used as a teaching classroom. The facility, which is among greenhouses maintained by a team led by Witkowski, has been featured in remote teaching lessons through the end of the spring semester.
May 7, 2020

Lincoln, Neb. —With a global pandemic looming in mid-March, the team supporting research in University of Nebraska–Lincoln greenhouses responded in typical fashion — they dug in.

Having learned that the university was moving toward an eventual facility closure and not knowing how it would affect critical research within greenhouses on East Campus and the Beadle Center, the team went to work preparing for a variety of eventualities.

“The first thing we did was bulk up on our stockpile of soil so research projects wouldn’t be effected during a shutdown,” Jeff Witkowski, greenhouse manager, said. “We mostly make our own blend for researchers, mixing and pasteurizing the material takes a lot of time so we wanted to get ahead.”

Other preparations included identifying supports for essential research projects, setting staffing expectations and making sure other key supplies were readily available.

Fast forward weeks into the university’s COVID-19 shutdown, and the prep work is helping keep the greenhouse team stay on track.

“It’s definitely slowed down in terms of use, but we’re able to keep things watered, complete our cleaning and sanitizing operations and we’ve continued to make more soil,” Witkowski said. “Researchers who have projects deemed essential are able to come in and maintain the work. And, we’re taking care of the other projects — which include soybeans, sorghum, wheat and some other more specialized projects — as needed.”

The team has also relied on facilities and buildings systems maintenance employees to ensure the facilities can continue to operate.

“Any time we have issues or if something breaks down, our facilities folks respond quickly and keep us operating,” Witkowski said. “It’s most definitely a team effort to keep these spaces functioning.”

Through it all, greenhouse workers have observed local, state and federal health guidelines related to COVID-19. Like other designated employees who continue to work on campus, Witkowski said that includes following social distancing rules, wearing masks, limiting the size of work projects, and holding team meetings via Zoom.

Now, the greenhouse staff is shifting its focus toward research needs during the remainder of the spring and preparing for the return to in-person instruction for the fall semester.

“This spring semester has led us through some uncharted territory, but I think we’re coming through it OK,” Witkowski said. “As a group, our greenhouse team takes a lot of pride in our work and being professional about it.

“And, we’re proud to be here every day, helping graduate students, post-docs and scientists, doing our part to help research continue through this difficult time.”

by Troy Fedderson | University Communication

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