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Hydroponic garden provides organic produce for Mean Greens Cafeteria

Hydroponic garden provides organic produce for Mean Greens Cafeteria

An up-close glimpse at one species of plants growing inside of Mean green's hydroponic garden. These plants will later-on be used as produce for the cafeteria. Amber Nasser

Hydroponic garden provides organic produce for Mean Greens Cafeteria
March 29
13:38 2017

A shipping container that once held products from thousands of miles away for over thousands of miles now has a more ecologically-friendly purpose.

The Leafy Green Machine, the retired shipping container that houses a farm within its walls, produces fresh, organic greens for the Mean Greens’ cafeteria.

The Machine is a fully insulated container allowing crops to flourish in a controlled environment despite any weather outside. This encapsulated farm comes from a business named Freight Farms based in Boston.

The process of bringing this hydroponic garden to UNT started with its purchase in August 2016, making UNT the first university in Texas to have this farm, Peter Balabuch, director of residential dining, said. He cites the main reason for investing in this farm was to benefit students’ meal plans.

Located just right outside of Maple Hall, Mean Greens cafeteria has created their very own hydroponic garden where they grow fresh vegetables and fruits for use in the cafeteria. It’s been placed inside an enclosed space in the back patio of the building, and is primarily run by their Sous Chef. Amber Nasser

Balabuch said the garden was chosen to be located specifically at the Mean Greens’ cafeteria because it fit into the “organic, healthy and sustainable” atmosphere that already exists there.

“We’re a self-operated dining program,” Balabuch said. “So everything we do is trying to keep the students’ costs down while adding as much value as we possibly can.”

This bang-for-your-buck strategy is the reason the garden was put in place, it provides a more self-sufficient method of obtaining organic produce. And residential executive chef Scott Bullock said the farm has a small environmental footprint, too.

“The electricity used is minimal,” Bullock said. “The AC in there draws in its own condensation. The water re-circulates and recycles itself. ”

The method of growing these organic leafy produce is time consuming but rewarding, Mean Greens cafeteria culinary operations chef Christopher Williams said. 

How it works 

Williams explains the process starts with a germinated seed planted inside of a small cubicle of soil on a germination tray. The seedling lives in this tray for about a week on a lower-placed shelf that automatically waters and provides light for the plant to stimulate its growth.

After the first incubation period, the plants move up to a higher shelf that provides the same functions for growth, but on a different scale suited to its needs. After two weeks, they move into one of the 256 towers in the farm.

These towers are slender, hollow iron bars that hang vertically from the container’s ceiling, contain mesh strips made of recycled materials that hold a cotton strip called a “wick.” The small plants are moved from the germination tray to these wicks.

“As [the plants] get on the wick, they get the proper spacing and placement,” Williams said. “As the water drains out of the pipes, it catches the top of the wick and saturates the whole thing.” 

In terms of water usage, the farm holds a water tank of around 140 gallons, using about a gallon of water a day. The water runs in pipes above the vertically-hanging towers, pouring directly into the wicks and each of the two strips per tower.

Container to table

Once the plants have finished growing, Williams and two other student workers harvest them. There are currently six varieties of plants and five more to be planted soon, Williams said.

“Right now, it’s just greens and herbs,” Williams said. “We’re trying some new projects to get some new things going in here. We’re in the stages of finding out what we like, what we’re going to grow in here and what is going to be the best for us.”

Williams said the farm has been planting since the third week of January. After testing out which greens work best, the goal is to produce enough lettuce to sustain the entirety of Mean Greens’ cafeteria and expand planting into other types of vegetables and fruits.

At full capacity, if the farm planted only lettuce, it could reap around 25,000 heads of at once. Williams said the plants in this farm take a third of the time to grow in comparison to real farms, due to its controlled environment.

The initial investment for the purchase of this farm was “in the neighborhood of $80,000,” Balabuch said. He added the return on investment “is going to be very quick” as the cafeteria is able to self-provide.

“We are able to get organic lettuce for less than what we would purchase conventional lettuce for,” Balabuch said. 

Bullock added that this farm is more cost effective.

“We think we’ll have this paid for itself in less than a year,” Bullock said.

Featured Image: An up-close glimpse at one species of plants growing inside of Mean Greens’ hydroponic garden. These plants will later be used as produce for the cafeteria. Amber Nasser

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Celeste Gracia

Celeste Gracia

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