Adventist Review Online | La Sierra University celebrates first hydroponics harvest
July 27, 2021
Freight2Table picks up on the centuries-old farming tradition of the Adventist school.
D.he beginnings of the University of La Sierra in the early 20th century were the school farm, especially the dairy, the alfalfa fields and the watermelon field, an important source of income for the institution and its student workers. In 2021, farming returned to the Riverside, California, U.S. campus – on one big device.
During the 2019-2020 school year, the University’s Enactus student team, based at the Zapara School of Business, began work on its Freight2Table project through the Boston-based Freight Farms program. The project involves growing lettuce and leafy vegetables, herbs, flowers and roots in a 40-foot shipping container that has been repurposed and redesigned using hydroponic technology.
The Freight Farms container arrived on March 30, 2021, was lifted by a crane and set down on a slab of recycled concrete and asphalt. Three months later, the Enactus team had their first crops – approximately 540 lettuce on July 12 and approximately 550 heads on July 19, an initial bonus donated to campus and community members. The team also planted baby lettuce, Swiss chard and butter lettuce at different stages of growth. The Enactus team aims to enter into product supplier agreements with local businesses and organizations and communicates with the Riverside markets and the University Dining Commons.
A crane lifts Freight Farms’ freight container onto a La Sierra University slab on March 30, 2021. [Photo: Natan Vigna, La Sierra University]
Megan Eisele (left), president of La Sierra’s Enactus team, and Aaron DesJardins, vice president of team marketing, plant the first tiny lettuce seeds in Freight Farms’ hydroponics container on May 17, 2021. [Photo: La Sierra University]
Enactus member Max Proebstle, a PhD student in health management and finance, describes the transplant process for red lettuce seedlings displayed on vertically growing panels. [Photo: La Sierra University]
Red lettuce continues to mature in vertical plates in Freight Farms’ hydroponic container. [Photo: La Sierra University]
Enactus members from left to right, Brandon Ching, Max Proebstle and Aaron DesJardins are performing the first red lettuce harvest on July 12, 2021. [Photo: La Sierra University]
The La Sierra Enactus team members, Natasha Thomas (left) and Andrew Léon, are packing freshly harvested red lettuce for distribution to the campus and community on July 12, 2021. [Photo: La Sierra University]
Parcels of Freight2Table lettuce marked with the “Two-Bit’s Best” product labels from the Enactus team. [Photo: La Sierra University]
Nancy and Hermogenes Guerpo will collect containers of fresh red lettuce during the Enactus team’s distribution event in the Sierra Vista Chapel parking lot on July 12, 2021. [Photo: La Sierra University]
The growing process involves a reverse osmosis water filtration system that is purchased and installed in the container. A time-controlled and regulated supply of electricity and nutrient-rich water as well as growing lamps for plant photosynthesis form the basis for the operation of the hydroponic farm. Lecturers and employees of the university monitor the system processes and the container technology. Freight Farms in Boston has real-time virtual access to the container’s systems to provide assistance when needed. For students, the hydroponic farming company offers a wealth of learning opportunities starting with an introduction to hydroponic farming.
“Although I’d heard this term in the past, I was never quite sure what it meant, but after spending so many hours tending to a hydroponic garden, it feels like a pretty clear picture of how the whole system works, ”said Aaron DesJardins, a dual marketing and graphic design major who will serve as marketing vice president for the Enactus team this year. His efforts include designing the farm’s logo and branding as “Two-Bit’s Best,” based on the hill overlooking the university campus known as Two-Bit Mountain.
“Another important thing I learned while working on the Freight2Table project is the importance of coordination, communication and team management,” said DesJardins. “The likelihood that the harvest will not be good is much higher if it is not managed properly.”
Since May, DesJardins and his teammates have been devoting several hours a week to working with plants in containers and in team meetings when planning product distribution. Inside the container they wear masks as well as gloves and protective gowns for health and safety reasons in order to reduce the risk of contamination of the plants and the growth system.
Marvin Payne, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Project Leader for Title V-funded Guided Pathways to Success program, and Richard Rakijian, Summer Program Coordinator and Chemistry / Biochemistry Laboratory Director, oversee the operations of the hydroponic farm. “DR. Payne and Richard have been a great help in helping us navigate the freight operations,” DesJardins said. “They were also of great help in deciding which crops to grow and planning things like crops and Transplant appointments. “
The new Title V program, Guided Pathways to Success in STEM, integrates STEM education into a summer curriculum designed to help new entrants get excited about STEM degrees and achieve success in college. Botanist and university biology professor John Perumal will lead seed germination activities for experiments in various conditions and evaluation of plant growth and development. The Enactus team has developed partnerships with other campus groups and programs such as the Hispanic Business Incubator.
Enactus’ Freight2Table project will also provide agricultural technology education to elementary school students in local school districts.
With Freight2Table, the Enactus team is entering an agricultural engineering market that is expected to grow strongly in the years to come. Food producers seek to feed the planet’s growing population in a more controlled and accessible manner in the face of extreme weather conditions and drought, and as individual producers seek alternatives to traditional gardens. According to an industry outlook and forecast from Research and Markets in Dublin, Ireland, hydroponics farming accounted for roughly half of vertical agriculture marketing in the US in 2018. For the period from 2019 to 2024, growth of 22 percent is forecast. The report says the total U.S. vertical farming market is expected to reach around $ 3 billion by 2024.
The water-saving process of hydroponic farming is an important aspect in drought-prone regions, including the western United States and particularly California, where a longstanding historic drought has fueled water fears. Hydroponic farming systems collect and reuse water and, as such, can use up to ten times less water than crops, according to Powerhouse Hydroponics.
Enactus students are currently volunteering to set up and maintain Freight2Table. Going forward, the team plans to hire students to manage the container farm while it increases production. The eight week growing process is labor intensive. During the first week, tiny seeds are hand-planted in small peat pods and then germinated in seedling trays in an upper trough. In the second and third weeks, the seedlings ripen in the seedling trays in a floor trough. During the fourth week, hundreds of young plants are transplanted one after another onto vertically growing plates and allowed to grow and mature four to five weeks before harvest. The movable vertical cultivation panels, which take up most of the container space, offer four sides for growing plants, with each side holding between 576 and 990 plants, depending on the variety.
The hydroponic farming project and its results are included in the team’s annual Enactus report and in the multimedia presentation during the annual Enactus competitions. Enactus, a global non-profit based in Springfield, Missouri, is focused on empowering business and education through business innovation and collaboration. It has teams in 1,730 locations in 36 countries. Since joining in 1991, the La Sierra team has won seven national Enactus championships and two world championships. In national competitions in April, which were held virtually, the La Sierra team placed among the eight best teams in the country and received the Excellence in Project Management Award from the US Enactus organization.
La Sierra Enactus member Max Proebstle will start his sophomore year this fall and was part of the presentation team at competitions last year. He is earning a dual MBA in health management and finance and has been involved in the hydroponic farm since October 2020. In the future, he will work with other students to maintain a steady flow of crops from the farm and build the customer base.
“Before this project, I didn’t even know that hydroponics existed. So for me everything was relatively new. It was a great experience to learn how to grow plants this way, ”said Proebstle. “The hardest part is learning the system and then getting a feel for nutrient and pH levels. Another thing I learned is that more people are interested in this form of sustainable agriculture and food production than I would have thought. We got such great feedback from donors, sponsors, the school and the community; it was really a blessing. “
The original version of this story was published by La Sierra University.