Let's Use the Right-Of-Way in a Smarter Way

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The Ray, a 18-mile-long stretch of highway that's trying its hardest to mitigate all the ill effects associated with highway travel, is getting a 1,000-square-foot demonstration wheat farm along its shoulder. . (Photo: The Ray)

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.

This difference should be apparent to anyone who has ever traveled along Georgia's Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway or, simply, The Ray. Not only has this 18-mile-long segment of Interstate 85 in rural Troup County boasted Anderson’s name since June 2014, it also functions as a self-described proving ground for cutting-edge sustainable technologies that aim to change with way we interact with major transportation corridors. For starters, there are solar-powered electric vehicle charging stations, beautifying bioswales and a 7,000-square-foot pollinator garden.

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

Right-of-way farming pilot along The Ray, Georgia
A highway that doubles as a wheat farm? The Ray, an initiative of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, is trying it out along Interstate 85 in Georgia. (Photo: The Ray)

An interstate highway that doubles as a wheat farm? The Ray is giving it a go with the help of the Land Institute and the Georgia Department of Transportation. (Illustration: The Ray)

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.

Specially developed Kernza wheat seeds are being planted along I-85 in Georgia.
Specially developed Kernza wheat seeds are being planted along I-85 in Georgia. (Photo: The Ray)

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

Installing right-of-way farm, The Ray
Not your average highway-improvement project: Work begins transforming unused land around I-85 into a highway-bound mini-farm where the main crop is a CO2-sequestering perennial grain. (Photo: The Ray)

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.’”

Map of I-87, Georgia
Designated in 2014, The Ray spans 18 miles of I-85 between the cities of West Point and La Grange, both of which are home to major manufacturing facilities for Interface, the flooring company founded by Ray Anderson in 1973. (Photo: Google Maps)

Designated in 2014, The Ray spans 18 miles of I-85 between the cities of West Point and La Grange, both of which are home to manufacturing facilities for Interface, the flooring company founded by Ray Anderson in 1973. (Screenshot: Google Maps)

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.

Illustration of solar panels along The Ray
Construction has kicked off on a right-of-way solar project alongside the Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway. (Photo: The Ray)

Construction has kicked off on a right-of-way solar project alongside a section of the Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway in Troup County, Georgia. (Rendering: The Ray)

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.