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Hyperlocal’s next level

High school students in the School District of West Salem in West Salem, Wis., have access to fresh lettuce at their garden bars and in premade salads at lunch through the district’s aquaponics garden, which will be expanded to include herb towers this fall.

This spring, the district is also broadening its sustainable and local sourcing efforts by planting 55 apple trees as part of the district’s new “food forest.” Director of Nutrition Services Kerri Feyen says the district stayed away from a traditional school garden or farm due to the central Wisconsin climate the district is located in.

“We decided to go the route of the apple orchard due in part to the difficulty maintaining the school garden,” Feyen says. “School gardens are great in concept, but the reality is that no one is here to maintain a summer garden or eat anything that grows in the short Wisconsin season.”

The trees were planted by elementary students in the district. Going forward, each elementary class will adopt two of the trees to take care of. Because apple trees are late-harvest plants, they will be able to be harvested in the fall when students return from summer break. All of the apples from the food forest will be used in the district’s foodservice program, appearing in different dishes on the menu.

“We will be offering the apples in a variety of ways, but prefer them as whole fruit choices,” Feyen says. “We will also make applesauce out of the fallen apples and a sweet treat of apple crisp at the end of the storage season.”

Feyen says that the apple trees are the first phase of the project, and that next fall, the district will be planting pear and cherry trees along with blueberry bushes, which can also be harvested while students are in school.

Finding a farm solution

In downtown Atlanta, Georgia State University faced a different challenge when trying to establish a campus farm.

“We’re in a really urban area by being in Atlanta,” says chef Cameron Thompson. “So, we don’t really have a lot of space for greenery.”

The solution was to house a 1-acre hydroponic farm in a refurbished shipping container. The university was able to raise funds for the farm by using money from a $3 sustainability fee that students pay as part of their tuition every semester. The fee is used to increase sustainability efforts on campus. 

Unlike a traditional farm, the shipping container farm uses sensors that monitor conditions such as humidity, temperature and carbon dioxide. It is also equipped with an automated watering system and LED lights to grow more than 4,500 plants at a time without insects, soil or pesticides. An app allows users to view the conditions inside the farm and adjust them to create the ideal environment for the plants to grow.

Thompson, who helps take care of the farm, says that managing it has been challenging at times, but has been a great benefit to the university.

“[The farm] has been a big learning experience for us in a good way,” she says. “Doing it in the shipping container is cool because it has that technology aspect that really helps you out with things that you may not know, and it teaches you a lot of things. Our learning came from a lot of conversations, emails and hours and hours of trial and error.”

One of the challenges happened on the first day the farm was installed.

“When we first got the farm, the system did not work, so it pushed our ramp-up back a whole day,” she says.

Despite the initial roadblock, the farm has yielded a variety of produce. It currently supplies leafy greens such as lettuce and kale as well as fresh herbs such as sage, dill and thyme to the school’s retail locations and catering program. The team is also experimenting with introducing other lettuces, including some Asian varieties, and is thinking about growing radishes. Thompson hopes that in about five years, the farm will produce enough produce to supply all the lettuce used in the dining halls on campus.

Along with providing the school with fresh, local produce, the shipping container has also helped the university connect with other schools in the area, as well as vendors.

“We’ve had a lot of tours from different universities, and that’s helped us bridge the gap with a lot of universities in the Southeast, because I think we’re the only ones at the moment with [a shipping container farm],” Thompson says. “It’s also really helped me with my vendors, because a lot of them are really into organic farming, so you learn a lot from everybody. There is actually a really big community in hydroponic farming.”

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