Sourcing produce from nearby farms or a campus greenhouse is one way to go local. But what about growing greens in a repurposed, 40-by-8-by-9.5-foot shipping container just steps from the dining hall? “You can’t get much closer to your food,” says Kevin Blaney, regional executive chef for Chartwells Higher Education’s Northeast region.
Supporting local farm-to-school initiatives has been a goal of Blaney’s, but the short growing season in New England makes that a challenge for much of the year. To grow lettuces year-round, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Worcester State University recently leased hydroponic shipping container farms.
“Lettuce is something that’s on the menu seven days a week, so the ability to connect the sustainable message of harvesting right here on campus, students are really taking an interest in that,” Blaney says.
Prep & training
To get ready for the hydroponic pod, Blaney and his team selected a site with water and electricity available and poured a concrete pad. Three staff members from each campus visited Boston for a two-day session with his supplier’s farming expert. In addition to a check-in visit, support staff is available by email and phone for questions.
Tech & tools
Built-in technology makes the indoor gardens easy to monitor. “There’s an LCD inside the unit that monitors humidity, temperature and CO2 levels that you can adjust remotely from a smartphone,” Blaney says. “[For example,] I want the temperature to go up for two weeks because it’s going to be really cold.”
The container’s 256 growing towers will provide some, but not all, of the lettuce the two campuses require; the first harvests of green leaf, red oak and butter lettuce are expected this semester. “You plant in quadrants so you’re constantly harvesting and reseeding,” says Blaney. “You can adjust accordingly for semester breaks or slow periods.”
Buying a container garden outright starts at $76,000, but because a large capital investment wasn’t realistic for either campus, they chose a monthly lease. “If for some reason this doesn’t work or have the impact I want, or the students aren’t interested in it, I can return it without worrying about a huge expense,” Blaney says.