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Clean and Green: Growing Vegetables Hydroponically

Clean and Green: Growing Vegetables Hydroponically

by Julie Steinbacher ’10

Inside the campus greenhouse, verdant rosettes of the Butterhead Bibb variety are arranged in troughs, their roots bathed constantly in nutrient-rich water circulated from a tank on the floor. Overhead, pepper plant tendrils trail from hanging buckets. On a nearby propagation table, tomato, red pepper, and pea seedlings nestled in rockwool cubes soak atop clay pellets designed to conserve water. The vegetables are being grown hydroponically, or without soil, and soon will be harvested and served in Goucher’s student dining halls.

“Hydroponics uses 10 to 25 percent of the water that traditional farming uses and 10 percent of the space,” says Dave Ludgin ’11, one of three biology majors who built the hydroponic system. “Water is going to be the next scarce resource, so it’s something that we need to preserve.”

Ludgin and two friends, Garrett Bent ’12 and Sam Glickstein ’12, were introduced to hydroponic gardening in January 2011 when they visited a farm in Roatan, Honduras, while studying abroad. Upon their return, they researched the method, applied for and received a Social Justice Grant from the President’s Office, and partnered with the student-run Campus Agricultural Co-op. By the following spring, they had installed a prototype.

It wasn’t an immediate success: The technique they chose requires that nutrient-rich water be cycled past the plants’ roots constantly. They had to adjust the angle of the trays for optimum water pressure, take measures to prevent algae growth, and always be prepared to clean up leaks and spills. They were constantly in the greenhouse. “We came out every day, sometimes two times a day,” says Bent.

They made their fi rst sale to Bon Appétit, the college’s food services provider, the following October. “We could officially feel like farmers,” Ludgin says. “We grew something, we sold it, and it was served.”

The greens were used in a dinner held at the President’s House. The next harvest was mixed with other salad bar offerings in Goucher’s dining halls. Revenue goes to the Agricultural Co-op, whose members will be trained this fall to use the system, and eventually toward more seeds. In addition to several varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, peas, and peppers, the students also raise mustard microgreens and rosemary.

“It’s a great opportunity for students at Goucher, as they have a commercial partner in us to create a kind of micro-business,” says Norman Zwagil, district manager of Bon Appétit. “We’re really excited by it.”

Glickstein, Bent, and Ludgin also may have an opportunity to partner with Bon Appétit as alumni. They plan to start a hydroponics business in Baltimore and would like to continue working with the food service group and the college. By understanding how to build hydroponic structures, says Bent, “we can outfi t any building or rooftop.” In addition, they feel passionately about “bringing healthy crops into a city where generally the residents don’t have access to that kind of food,” says Ludgin. And, he adds, they have their eye on aquaponics: “The endgame is to have a facility that grows tons of different crops with different kinds of fi sh being raised … basically creating a system that has zero waste, that is self-cleaning, that can run in an endless cycle.”

To see more photos of the college’s hydroponic garden, click here.