School of Agriculture
Greenhouse Research Complex
The greenhouse complex at Tennessee Tech’s Oakley Farm was started with an initial gift from Millard V. Oakley the Spring of 2013. The gift allowed the School of Agriculture at Tennessee Tech to build a 2,000 square foot high tunnel for vegetable production that spring and a 6,000 square foot high tunnel in the summer. That same spring, students from the farm management class assembled the 2,000 square foot greenhouse and planted tomatoes in the soil as a class project. The larger greenhouse was built by a greenhouse construction class taught by Drs. Best and Fennewald later that year in the summer. That first summer the tomatoes grew very well in the small high tunnel and the students started selling them at the local farmers’ market in Cookeville.
The next growing season the school was able to grow about 1,400 tomato plants in the 8,000 square feet of greenhouse space. The SOA joined the Chattanooga Farmers’ Market where they were easily able to sell all of their tomatoes and meet many Tech graduates as well. They specialized in growing heirloom tomatoes knowing that they would be in high demand with the customers in Cookeville and Chattanooga.
Seeing growth in the program and the interest by the students, Mr. Oakley approached Dr. Best about expanding the operation even more. In 2015, they received another gift from Mr. Oakley which was matched by the USDA Rural Development. This allowed the construction of 12,000 more square feet of greenhouse space that would be used for educational and outreach purposes. This newest greenhouse was 12 feet tall to the bottom of the trusses which would allow for both hydroponic production and soil production if desired. With the expansion of the operation there became a need for a packing house, equipment like a tractor, front-end loader and tiller and restrooms for the students and guests so Dr. Best asked for an additional gift from Farm Credit Services. FCS donated enough for the tractor and to get a start on the building, so then Millard Oakley, the Tennessee Tech Foundation and the USDA invested enough in the project to get a 3,000 square foot packing house with office space, student living quarters and bathrooms constructed and an additional 12,000 square feet of greenhouse space bringing the facility to a total of 32,000 square feet in 2017.
The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when we received a grant from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture in December of 2018 to switch all of our greenhouse production to hydroponics and add automatic roof vents to our high tunnels that didn’t have them. In the summer of 2019 our production was strictly hydroponic and we had an excellent season. We grew 4,500 tomato plants including 40 different varieties and sold them at four different farmers’ markets in Tennessee and Kentucky. Our customers couldn’t believe they were grown hydroponically because they tasted so good. Our second full season of hydroponic production is upon us and with the improvements in the ventilation system being complete now our undergraduate student workers should have a very pleasant educational experience this coming summer.