UA To Serve Lettuce Harvested On Campus

UA To Serve Lettuce Harvested On Campus

UA To Serve Lettuce Harvested On Campus

Indoor hub controlled by computer

By Jaime Adame

September 30, 2016


Taylor Pruitt, a sophomore from Bergman in Boone County, helps harvest leaf lettuce Thursday at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. A shipping container on campus has been converted into a hydroponic growing station.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The vertical rows of green leaf lettuce were closely packed on the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville campus, the inaugural crop in a new indoor hydroponic growing station.

Approximately 1,100 heads of lettuce harvested Thursday will be served today in UA dining halls or donated to campus food recovery efforts. The effort from Chartwells Dining Services cuts emissions from food transport and has students helping to manage the indoor farming operation.

A computer-controlled growing station, fashioned out of a used shipping container, cost about $97,000, said Andrew Lipson, resident district manager for Chartwells.

"We figure somewhere between 4½ and five years, it will pay itself off in just the produce alone," Lipson said. "I think the value of what it's teaching and what we're doing is beyond that."

The 40-foot-long farm unit, purchased from Boston-based Freight Farms, sits behind an agriculture academic building. Michael Evans, a UA horticulture professor, served as an adviser to the project.

"They are out there on the cutting edge," E̶d̶w̶a̶r̶d̶s̶ Evans* said.

Planted about six weeks ago, the green leaf lettuce grew with a steady drip of water and nutrients in a climate-controlled environment.

"It's all run by this computer system," said Ashley Meek, a Chartwells dietitian and farm manager, before turning on bright LED light strips calibrated to the appropriate wavelength for growing crops. The thin strands glowed red and blue in front of the vertical towers.

Adjustments can be made via a smartphone app, with temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels continuously monitored. On Thursday morning, the temperature was 62 degrees, as it is pretty much around-the-clock, Meek said.

The harvested lettuce almost uniformly looked a deep shade of green, to the delight of Chartwells student interns Taylor Pruitt and Merrisa Jennings.

"I want to see people's reactions and them being so happy and being like, what is this, we've never had lettuce so good before," said Pruitt, a 19-year-old UA sophomore. She said she spent about eight to 10 hours each week helping manage the farm.

After harvesting the leafy greens, she and Jennings began working on the next round of crops.

They placed small grow buds in a row, some distance apart, between a folded-over section of plastic mesh. The mesh then slid inside rigid vertical towers, slotted to allow the buds to face the strips of dangling light.

"We're able to use a small amount of space to feed a lot of people, so I think that's pretty cool," said Jennings.

E̶d̶w̶a̶r̶d̶s̶ Evans*, an expert in hydroponics, said the method is being used more and more.

For now, lettuce remains the sole crop grown in the Chartwells farm unit. Lipson said basil or other herbs could be grown and talked about perhaps trying to grow strawberries if the operation expands next year.

UA provided the required foundation for the farm unit and utility hook-ups. The electrical, plumbing, trenching and carpentry work totaled about $22,000, Lynne Williams-Bell, an assistant vice chancellor, said in an email.

Lipson and Meek praised the university and E̶d̶w̶a̶r̶d̶s̶ Evans* for their support.

"I can't stress enough the collaboration with housing, business, and student affairs [at UA]," Lipson said.

A few other schools have also turned to hydroponics to supply dining hall produce. Hydroponics towers have been in place since earlier this year at a Missouri State University dining hall.

Stacy Tollefson, a professor at the University of Arizona, wrote in an email that her university used to sell some of the produce from its 5,000-square-foot teaching greenhouse to campus dining services but that it now has other buyers that pay more to maintain the educational program.

Lipson said two universities in Massachusetts have identical farm units to the one at UA. For now, the student interns are paid but receive no formal academic credit.

UA researchers already work on greenhouse hydroponic farming, but Lipson said he'd like to have the new farm unit become a part of the university curriculum.

"But we really need to walk before we run," Lipson said.

Metro on 09/30/2016

*CORRECTION: Michael Evans is a University of Arkansas horticulture professor. This story incorrectly identified him on subsequent references.

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