Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 29, 2013

Learning business, benefits of vertical farming

BY ANNE STANTON astanton@record-eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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.

“The students there have to make a business model of whatever they do. It’s agronomy with business,” she said. “EARTH University then gives them seed money to go back home and start a business. The goal is for students to be an agent of change.”

Hazelwood would like to some day adopt the same approach at the Great Lakes Water Studies program. The vertical farm is a beginning, with potential for sales in homes, farms and restaurants. The first step is to supply fresh lettuce to Lobdell’s, NMC’s teaching restaurant.

Mass-producing food in vertical indoor farms is shifting from a futuristic concept to a green reality. In an industrial Chicago suburb, for example, the company FarmedHere operates a massive vertical farm to grow premium greens and culinary herbs, according to a report in examiner.com.

“Locally, the people who are very interested in this are the Cherry Capital Foods folks; they’ve invested in the vertical structure,” Hazelwood said.

Hazelwood called vertical farming an excellent solution to feeding burgeoning urban populations; more than half the world now lives in urban areas, according to a United Nations report.

The classroom farm is funded by a $5,000 innovation grant through the NMC Foundation. Plants are placed on three tiers with overhead fluorescent lights over each row. Volunteer students chart temperature, pH and dissolved oxygen levels against growth rates. Students have grown fond of the plants, even naming them, Hazelwood said.

“When I told them I had eaten Janet, it was ‘Oh my gosh!” she said.

The $400 garden could see upgrades that include energy-efficient LED lights, automation, and a fish tank.

For now, students must keep an eye on the five-gallon bucket of water. The pump stopped because the lettuce sucked up all the water during a growth spurt and no one was around to notice. The malfunction illustrates that indoor farms aren’t beyond catastrophes, Hazelwood said.

“We had a drought this weekend,” she said. “It’s real life.”