Project May Create First Rooftop Gardens On Campus

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

English major and Michigan native Brad Riffee is creating a plan that could lead to the first rooftop gardens across the Fairmont State University campus.

 For Riffee, who has family roots in West Virginia, a summer of high tech gardening was also a way of impacting his community. His inspiration came from Voltaire’s comic novel “Candide,” where the hero establishes a small farm on which he and his friends keep themselves from the three great evils: poverty, vice and boredom.

 Candide said, “We must cultivate our gardens.” Riffee’s outlook is much the same: “We have the ability to grow and create anything. Through cultivating your own garden, you can help others grow.” 

Riffee received a Summer Undergraduate Research (SURE) grant for his project, “A Feasibility Study: Hydroponic Rooftop Greenhouses at FSU.” He spent the summer growing tomatoes, lettuce and herbs in a self-devised hydroponic greenhouse system. The SURE Fellowships are awarded by FSU as part of its commitment to undergraduate research. 

“This is just the first step in the process of where we’re going. The next step is to devise a plan of action. Finally, every flat building on campus would have a greenhouse on it,” explained Riffee.  

The benefits of a hydroponic greenhouse, as opposed to a traditional, soil-based system, include the ability to grow year round and the possibility of adjusting the nutrients available to the plant based upon its maturity. In addition, the lack of soil aids in the prevention of plant diseases and insect infestations. 

Dr. Robert Baker, Director of the Honors Program, was Riffee’s faculty mentor for the summer project. “Brad’s vision is expansive and even expanding. I think the project has helped him to more clearly define his vision. Brad’s project could be a first in bringing together a number of departments across campus to work on a project that would engage students,” Baker said. 

The FSU junior expected to prove that rooftop hydroponic greenhouses could efficiently produce vegetables that could be used by campus dining services. A cost benefit analysis would likely determine that produce cultivated from the hydroponic garden would be fiscally beneficial to the university. 

As the seeds were planted for Riffee’s project in the spring of 2011, he also expected to reap more than just the produce he would pick in the coming months. The research project was designed to ultimately combine multiple academic disciplines.  

If hydroponic rooftop gardens come to fruition, biology and chemistry students could potentially maintain the project and integrate lessons into their classroom work. The Dining Services Department would have another source for fresh, local products when creating menus. Architecture students who are learning about structural design could be an integral part of getting the project from paper to the rooftops. 

“I would feel blessed that I was able to help the university and help the students and provide a different learning environment,” Riffee said.

What does “be First” mean to you? To share your “be First” story, send an e-mail to