NEWPORT, R.I. – The future of urban agriculture is being cultivated in the basement of a Salve Regina University dormitory, where biology students are spending their summer experimenting in a playground array of hydroponic equipment to refine systems that could reshape the farming industry.
“We’re not going to grow enough food in here to feed the world, that’s for sure,” Dr. Jameson Chace, assistant professor of biology and biomedical sciences, says in the cellar that has been transformed into a water park of tubes, towers and trays that together form a fully operational hydroponic “grow house.”
Biology students are already harvesting their initial crops of arugula, red leaf lettuce, collard greens, basil, parsley, spinach and Swiss chard. The greens are being given away now, but once the farm is certified the produce may likely be offered up in the university’s dining hall. Proving the commercial viability of hydroponic farming is a primary focus of the research here.
“It’s all experimental, all research and development,” Chace said. “It’s an experiment in space-saving, technologies, lighting, pH of the water … you want to figure out how you get the plants to grow the fastest but also how to get them to grow the fastest with the most nutrition.”
“Our goal is to get other schools to come see so they can go back and grow something simple at first, like sprouts, and we can begin to collaborate,” Chace said. We can take a certain string of spinach and say, ‘you guys try it with more red lights than blues and we’ll try it with more blues than reds, or with different pH’s or different temperatures …’”
Salve Regina’s grow house was built in the basement of Hunt residence hall with equipment donated to the university by Irving A. Backman of Dedham, Mass.-based I.A. Backman Associates. Backman, an entrepreneur who is pushing new technologies to reinvent farming, helped start a similar, smaller grow house at Boston College and the two institutions are currently collaborating on their successes … and failures.
“The future of agriculture in the urban environment can’t be based on land because there’s not enough land for all the people who live in the urban environment,” Chace said. “And the land that we do have is usually contaminated with lead, heavy metals, and other things, and it’s at a premium, and also the growing season is really short.”
So, you get the most people – sometimes in the most poverty – in the places that are the greatest distance from food sources, Chace said. And food prices are just going to go up with the cost of transportation. “There’s a real issue about food availability and food security,” Chace said. “One way to solve this is by bringing it indoors.
“Hydroponic systems grow plants in the water, they don’t need as much land, there aren’t any bugs, there’s no need for pesticides and the fertilizers are going right in the water so you’re not spraying it on land,” Chace said “The carbon footprint is going to be relatively small if the energy coming in can be provided by a green source.”
This summer, senior Margaret Kane of Bangor, Maine and sophomore Madison van Orden of Roxbury, N.J., are monitoring, measuring and recording everything that happens in the lab – from nutrient levels to pH solutions to kilowatts used. They’re maintaining a daily lab notebook, generating data sheets and even writing a “how to manual” to guide future students in their pursuit of inquiry-based science education here.
Everything starts in the propagator system, where seeds are planted, germinate and are typically ready to transplant in about 10 days into one of the growing systems – the Elevated Growing System and Tubular Growing System are currently flush with vibrant greens.
The plants are on a time-feed and given cycles of light followed by a period of darkness to allow for rest. The students are using LED lights as much as possible because they don’t draw as much heat and therefore don’t require as much air circulation. They’re more expensive than the fluorescent lights, however.
“Our goal is to make this as cost-effective as possible so people who are looking to do it commercially can figure out how this whole thing works,” Kane said. “You can do this anywhere. That’s the beauty of the system.”
Van Orden said a big benefit is producing all this healthy food that you know is safe because you know exactly where it’s coming from. “You know that there are no chemicals going into it and that it’s not being shipped from far away,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot of research being done hydroponically right now. We are some of the leaders doing this which is very exciting.”