Traverse City Record-Eagle

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December 29, 2013

Learning business, benefits of vertical farming

TRAVERSE CITY — Constanza Hazelwood plopped little black pots of bib lettuce plants into water to soak, an effort to save them from an indoor “drought” during a holiday break at Northwestern Michigan College.

“We had a tragedy here,” she joked. “The pumps stopped working. They’re not dead, just a little sad. They just need to suck more water and the leaves will come back.”

She was right. The leaves perked up an hour later.

Hazelwood is NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies program coordinator and oversees the classroom’s vertical food farm — a hydroponic garden that uses a tiered approach to allow for more plants in a smaller area.

“We want to emphasize sustainability,” she said. “We’ve grown 24 heads of lettuce in the last two months in 16 cubic feet, a very small space, and the taste was great.”

Plants are grown indoors, which negates the need for pesticides and herbicides. When and if a fish tank is added, nutrients could be provided by nitrogen-rich fish waste in a closed-loop, automated system that returns recycled water to the fish tank, Hazelwood said.

Hazelwood said she’s worked closely with Tanner Ciganic, a student whom she fondly describes as a hydroponic “genius,” and Luis Navarro, an exchange student from Costa Rica’s EARTH University.

“The main idea is we want to show families here how to grow plants during the winter inside their house with lower resources so they don’t have to spend so much money,” Navarro said. “We want to find the correct temperature, pH, lights and the placement of pipes to create a manual for people to use.”

Hazelwood said the project was inspired, in part, by past tours of EARTH University’s urban gardening project. She’ll take a fourth trip there this spring with NMC students and others.

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