Right-of-way farming joins a bevy of sustainable initiatives along the Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway in Georgia. By Matt Hickman, 4 Dec 2017
Having a stretch of highway named in your honor is a big deal. But the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, the nonprofit family foundation dedicated to realizing the legacy of the late green business pioneer, has opted to take the highway memorialization process one giant step further.
The folks behind The Ray — which is the shorthand name for both the highway and the group rethinking the highway — are the first to admit that highways are, by their very nature, the antithesis of what Anderson championed during his lifetime. (Anderson passed away in 2011 at the age of 77 following a brief battle with liver cancer.) As Anderson’s daughter, Harriet Langford, explains in the introductory video below: “I started thinking: What would daddy do if he knew his name was on a highway? I don’t think he’d like it too much …”
As the visionary chairman and founder of modular carpeting empire Interface, Anderson fought tirelessly for a cleaner, safer tomorrow. The Ray’s website points out that the American highway system is responsible for emitting 5 million tons of CO2 every year and, in 2015, claimed the lives of 35,000 motorists and their passengers. It goes on to call highways “one of the most environmentally damaging and dangerous infrastructure systems in the world.” Not exactly a glowing endorsement.
But that’s beside the point. The Ray, which spans the Alabama-bordering burg of West Point (Anderson’s hometown) and the larger city of LaGrange (home to Interface’s North American manufacturing headquarters) in far-western Georgia, honors Anderson the only way it knows how: by turning the concept of an inherently dangerous and highly polluting highway on its head and altering it for the better.
Rethinking what a highway can be
The Ray — billed as the “world’s first restorative transportation corridor” — has several pilot projects in place. There’s the aforementioned bioswales, a landscaping feature that captures and filters polluted stormwater; the bee, bird, butterfly and beneficial critter-attracting garden installed at I-85’s George Visitor Welcome Center with the help of the Georgia Conservancy and the Chattahoochee Nature Center; and the first-in-the-state photovoltaic electric vehicle charging stations (PV4EV) made possible by Troup County-based Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia. (Coincidentally, Kia has developed a plug-in hybrid concept car with solar cells embedded in its glass roof panels dubbed The Ray.)
Other existing initiatives, both located at the info center in West Point, include an innovative tire safety check station that aims to boost safety and fuel efficiency by texting motorists “critical information” about their tire pressure as well as a small test patch of solar power-generating pavement.
However, it’s the latest pilot project launched along The Ray that’s perhaps the most radical yet: wheat farming directly on the shoulder of I-85.
You read that right: roadside wheat — intermediate wheatgrass, specifically — farming right along a section of one of the southeast’s most highly trafficked interstate highways, a 666-mile north-south route that originates in Montgomery, Alabama, and terminates near Richmond, Virginia, passing through major cities including Atlanta (as one half of the dreaded Downtown Connector) and Charlotte, North Carolina, along on the way.
As a press release points out, one of the highway’s largest — and mostly untapped — assets is the normally litter-strewn no man’s land around the highway known as the right-of-way. While the primarily function of these shoulders is, of course, to accommodate broken-down motorists and drivers in distress, the group behind The Ray is confident that there’s ample room for multitasking of the agricultural variety.
In November, The Ray, in collaboration with the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and Kansas-based nonprofit the Land Institute, officially launched a 1,000-square-foot mini-farm along the highway for demonstration purposes. A team headed by Brad Davis from the University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design will monitor the three-year-long pilot project.
“Georgia DOT is always improving the management of our roadsides, which are acres of valuable land assets,” explains Chris DeGrace, head landscape architect with the state transportation authority. “Over the past two years on The Ray, we have installed pollinator meadows, bioswales of native grasses, and now a pilot of fiber farming. The opportunity to conduct research on a working roadside with the Land Institute and The Ray is unique and unlike anything in the country.”
Going against the grain
While the fact that a honest-to-goodness wheatgrass farm has been established along the shoulder of I-85 is notable within itself, the type of grain being grown alongside The Ray is also garnering attention. A sod-forming, multi-functional perennial grain with superior carbon sequestering capabilities, Kernza is a trademarked grain (Thinopyrum intermedium) that has extra-deep, 10-foot roots that help to enrich the soil, retain clean water and capture CO2. All and all, it’s the perfect plant to grow directly alongside a busy interstate named in memory of an entrepreneur dedicated to the business of environmental sustainability.
“Wheat straw is increasingly used as an alternative to trees and a more sustainable fiber source for making many of the highly disposable products we use every day — diapers, paper towels, toilet paper,” says Harriet Langford, who serves as founder and president of The Ray in addition to her role of legacy-carrying trustee of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. “By growing and harvesting wheat in the right-of-way, we’re creating a new economic opportunity, all while drawing down carbon. I think my dad would say this is ‘so right, so smart.’”
Tim Crews, director of research and lead ecologist with the Land Institute, goes on to add: “Kernza perennial grain collaboration will help establish Kernza’s productive geographic range as demand for the grain continues to grow.”
Since it was first developed, Kernza has developed an ever-expanding niche following within the food and beverage industry. It’s the main ingredient in Patagonia Provisions’ aptly named Long Root Ale and can be found in various menu items at eateries in cities ranging from Portland to Minneapolis. However, as mentioned by Langford, the wheat harvested from the The Ray’s right-of-way will not be not be used for culinary purposes.
Beyond the Kernza pilot project, The Ray hopes to launch additional shoulder-side farming schemes using different seed mixes and other “innovative agricultural solutions” in the coming the years. These agriculture-centered pilot projects would join additional right-of-way revamps along the Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway including a solar scheme that harnesses the shoulder for renewable energy production. Due for completion in 2019, the initiative is the first time that the state-owned right-of-way has been used to produce clean, renewable energy.
Also in 2019, the GDOT plans to repave a section of I-85 that includes the Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway. The Ray plans to use this routine maintenance work as an opportunity to “experiment with nontraditional materials” namely asphalt that incorporates recycled tires. These so-called “rubber roads” reduce noise pollution while extending the life of the pavement by 15 to 20 percent.
Ultimately, The Ray hopes to transform this once-otherwise unexceptional 18-mile stretch of interstate in west Georgia into a net-zero highway: fatalities, CO2 emissions and endangered animal species living in proximity to the road will all drop to zero as The Ray barrels full-speed ahead into the future. Buckle up.
On The Ray’s 18-mile stretch of roadway, maximizing all assets is a key strategy to creating a cleaner, safer highway. One of our largest assets is the land around the interstate, called the right-of-way. This space, designed to be a refuge of safe harbor for drivers in distress, can multi-task and fully utilize the land without threatening its primary purpose to drivers. This month, the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Kansas-based Land Institute, and The Ray implemented our newest pilot demonstration on the right-of-way: perennial wheat farming. For the next three years, the pilot project, which uses Kernza® perennial grain, will be monitored by UGA’s Bachelor of Landscape Architecture Program Director and Associate Professor, Brad Davis, as well as a Master of Landscape Architecture student Matthew Quirey.
“The College of Environment and Design is proud to partner with The Ray, GDOT, and the Land Institute on this first trial of Kernza in a southern locale,” said Professor Davis, “We are keenly aware of the potential for perennial grains to transform agriculture and fiber farming, and to improve the way we manage millions of acres of land across the nation and around the world. As landscape architects, planners, and historic preservationists, we have long advocated for more sustainable land management practices and we are enthusiastic in our support of the research goals and mission of the Land Institute. We hope this first small trial will prove successful and pave the way for adoption and expansion across the region and to other innovative perennial seed crops in the future.”
This 1,000 square foot pilot project uses Kernza seed from The Land Institute. Kernza plants are a breakthrough from traditional annual wheat grasses and have deep, 10-foot roots that help enrich the soil, retain clean water, and sequester carbon. The Kernza pilot on The Ray is the first in the southeast and the first to be located on a highway roadside.
“Georgia DOT is always improving the management of our roadsides, which are acres of valuable land assets,” said Chris DeGrace, Landscape Architect at Georgia DOT. “Over the past two years on The Ray, we have installed pollinator meadows, bioswales of native grasses, and now a pilot of fiber farming. The opportunity to conduct research on a working roadside with the Land Institute and The Ray is unique and unlike anything in the country.”
“Wheat straw is increasingly used as an alternative to trees, and is a more sustainable fiber source for making many of the highly disposable products we use every day – diapers, paper towels, toilet paper,” said The Ray Founder and President, Harriet Langford. “By growing and harvesting wheat in the right-of-way, we’re creating a new economic opportunity, all while drawing down carbon. I think my dad would say this is ‘so right, so smart.’”
“This Kernza perennial grain collaboration will help establish Kernza’s productive geographic range as demand for the grain continues to grow. We look forward to data from this project and are excited to collaborate with The Ray, Georgia DOT and other partners,” said Tim Crews, Director of Research and Lead Ecologist at The Land Institute.
The Land Institute’s Kernza perennial grain is featured in The New York Times bestseller, Drawdown as a “coming attraction,” for its potential to reduce carbon emission. “Eyes are opening to the power of soil for carbon drawdown – even in unlikely places and especially with deep-rooted, perennial crops like Kernza,” said Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, Senior Writer at Project Drawdown, “The pilot is another exciting step forward for this corridor of testing, learning, and teaching.”
This Kernza perennial grain pilot is only the starting point for The Ray. The Ray hopes to expand this project into a vegetative laboratory that would support a variety of pilots over the next several years. These pilots would test different seed mixes for pollinators, weed control strategies, and other innovative agricultural solutions.
About The Ray
The Ray is a proving ground for the evolving ideas and technologies that will transform the transportation infrastructure of the future, beginning with the corridor of road that is named in memory of Ray C. Anderson (1934-2011), a Georgia native who became a captain of industry and was recognized as a leader in green business when he challenged his company, Interface, Inc., to pursue zero environmental footprint. Chaired by Ray’s daughter Harriet Langford, The Ray is an epiphany of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Learn more at www.TheRay.org.
About The Land Institute
The Land Institute is a science-based research organization working to develop an alternative to current destructive agricultural practices. Our work is dedicated to advancing perennial grain crops and polyculture farming solutions. Founded as a nonprofit organization in 1976, The Land Institute is committed to researching and developing food production methods that sustain the land and soil, a precious resource in an increasingly precarious state around the globe. Learn more at www.landinstitute.org.
About the Georgia Department of Transportation (Georgia DOT)
Georgia Department of Transportation plans, constructs and maintains Georgia’s state and federal highways.We’re involved in bridge, waterway, public transit, rail, general aviation, bike and pedestrian programs. And we help local governments maintain their roads. Our transportation network connects our interstates, state highways, county roads and city streets. Georgia DOT is committed to providing a safe, seamless and sustainable transportation system that supports Georgia’s economy and is sensitive to its citizens and its nvironment. Learn more at www.dot.ga.gov.
About UGA College of Environment and Design
Through teaching, research, and service in design, planning, and management of the land and its structures, CED will work to improve the environment by providing new and time-tested models for development and preservation. The college will educate the next generation of landscape architects, planners, and historic preservation practitioners to become experts in their areas of specialization with the capacity to collaborate and work effectively across traditional disciplinary and professional boundaries. Graduates of the programs will be equipped to practice in an increasingly complex and changing world characterized by global influences, local needs, and the imperative to create a more sustainable future. Learn more at http://www.ced.uga.edu.
About Project Drawdown
Project Drawdown is a nonprofit research institute that maps, measures, and models the most substantive solutions to reverse global warming and communicates the findings to the world in every way possible. The first generation of this work is captured in the New York Times best-seller Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global, edited by Paul Hawken. Learn more at http://www.drawdown.org/.