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Taking ag learning on the road

Posted by | August 27, 2014

As a freshman, Ciara Dahm brought her dresser to Washington State University to hold T-shirts, socks and sweaters – not chickens, worms and mushrooms.

Too big for her college apartment, the dresser has become the framework for a mobile agricultural center (MAC), an innovative project inspired by a design/build class in the WSU landscape architecture program.

Ciara Dahm and Kyle Braun inspect the MAC’s chicken roost.
Ciara Dahm and Kyle Braun inspect the MAC’s chicken roost.

Dahm is one of six students who imagined, designed and initiated construction of the MAC, a compact, travel-ready, sustainable agricultural system that delivers hands-on learning opportunities to schools, community centers and WSU campus locations.

“The back of the dresser and the top two drawers were removed so we could fill them with hay for chickens to roost,” said Dahm, a Landscape Architecture major. “To harvest the eggs, you just pull open the drawers.”

Along with the chicken roost and coop, the MAC features a living roof as well as modular planting beds that can be left at different locations. The completed model will have solar panels, composting and water collection systems, tool storage and a hand-washing station. The dresser’s lower drawers will be lined and used in different ways, including as worm and mushroom habitats.

From paper to practice

Elizabeth Graff
Elizabeth Graff

The class, taught by Elizabeth Graff, a professor in the WSU School of Design and Construction, provided the MAC team with a number of hands-on learning opportunities.

“We wanted to use as much repurposed material as possible, but in some cases we couldn’t find the materials we needed,” said Dahm. The team used new lumber for the framework in order to comply with the WSU carpentry shop’s safety requirements.

“We found out that some things wouldn’t work, and so we’ve been designing as we go,” said Kyle Braun, a landscape architecture student and MAC project manager. “I’m really proud of everyone in the class because we came together and there wasn’t a lot of conflict in making decisions.”

“Prior to this, I really didn’t have a lot of real-world experience working on a project that I helped design. My knowledge was all very theoretical,” said Dahm. “It was really cool getting the experience of not only working with people within my group but also with members of the community.”

Building the vision

When Graff was asked to teach the class last spring, a project had yet to be identified.

“The idea wasn’t even in existence,” she said. “To be charged with designing and building a project in a semester, with no idea what you are going to do, requires a bit of a miracle.”

Kyle Braun installs planters for the MAC’s green roof.
Kyle Braun installs planters for the MAC’s green roof.

She enlisted alumni, industry partners and WSU staff to identify a project that would provide value to the university and the community as well as challenge students to investigate, design, build and demonstrate a complete landscape system.

“All of these people came together – stakeholders, alumni, the six students involved – and the dynamic was really flowing and creative,” said Graff.

Early in the process, the decision was made to create a project that would become part of the Eggert Family Organic Farm on the WSU campus in Pullman. Since the master plan for the farm is still in the development stage, the idea of a mobile learning garden was introduced and the students embraced it.

Small and accessible

Team members were intrigued by concepts both old and new. They gave bookmobiles high marks because of the accessibility and benefits provided to people who would otherwise not have access to information. And they valued the more recent “tiny house movement” for its ingeniously designed living spaces, often on wheels.

“They just went nuts! It got really exciting,” said Graff.

“The MAC embodies natural resource systems on a microscale for demonstration,” said Graff. “It integrates systems that landscape architects inherently work with such as water, energy, land use and materials.

“And it intends to publicly inspire responsibility for how we manage and use our resources in the face of rising global pressures,” she said.

The MAC in action

Graff and several students from the class recently conducted a planting workshop at the elementary school in Tekoa, Wash. Since the MAC is not yet ready for travel, they brought along several planters from the green roof.

Tekoa Elementary School fourth-graders plant lettuce as part of a MAC workshop.
Tekoa Elementary School fourth-graders plant lettuce as part of a MAC workshop.

“We’ve developed curricula that explains permaculture (sustainable, self-sufficient agriculture), the concept of seed-to-table, responsible use of resources and where food comes from,” said Graff.

The Tekoa fourth-graders learned about the concepts behind the mobile garden, helped plant seedlings in planters for the roof and proposed designs for painting the MAC shingles.

“We taught them the basics of planting a few different vegetables,” said Kristofor Ludvigson, an organic agriculture major. “It had just rained the day before, so they were also really interested in the worms that were in the ground. I think they enjoyed helping and getting dirty.”

More to come

While the MAC will eventually be parked at the Eggert Farm, it will spend the summer at the Tukey Orchard at WSU Pullman. In the fall, the WSU Landscape Architecture Club, which includes most of the students from Graff’s design/build class, will complete construction of the MAC. Tours will be ongoing.

For more information about the club, visit the Facebook page at