Dining halls grow their own food with ZipGrow towers

Originally posted on the-standard.org on May 3, 2016. Photo taken by Ryan Welch.

The dining halls already hold a number of sustainability programs but on the week of April 7, they implemented one more.

Chartwells purchased its first two ZipGrow towers and has already started growing more than 14 different kinds of edible plants. One structure is kept inside the Blair-Shannon Dining Center and the other at the Garst Dining Center.

Most of the plants grown on the structures are not the typical household spices.

“There are a lot of things that are edible that people don’t realize are edible,” Quinton Eason, senior executive chef at MSU said. “The idea is to show off how fun these things are and the cool things that can grow in there.”

According to Resident District Manager Tony Hein, the project was first thought of in January.

Each of the structures cost $2,000. The towers are from a company called Bright Agrotech. According to a video on their website, the structure allows plants to be grown on a vertical tower, one right next to the other.

Once they are purchased, Hein has them sent to a third party that gets the seeds ready.

“We’re working with a greenhouse out in Mansfield and so they start these for us,” Hein said. “We get them when they are about two or three weeks old when they are about an inch high.”

When the seeds are planted, they are put into a plug. Eason said that the plugs are different from traditional methods of farming.

“It’s like a peat matrix and so what they do is they take a little bit of peat and soil media and press it together really hard and (at) high pressure so its got better surface tension so they don’t break but it is considered a soilless media,” Eason said.

As opposed to regular soil, Eason said this method of farming helps spur plants into a growing frenzy.

“It holds moisture a little better and roots really like to have a little bit of tension, so it gives them energy and gives more stability,” he said. “Also, it has water retention and water releasing abilities.”

Once the seeds are in these plugs, a drip running on a pump constantly runs down the flood tables and moistening the plugs and the seeds. As it drips down, the same water gets pumped back up toward the top and the process starts all over again.

From the way the structure is built, Eason said the only growths that could potentially get on the plants are algae, but that they are otherwise free of problems.

“The FDA regulations say that is it safe,” Eason said. “The water is being tested on a regular basis and it is completely free of any soil-born bacteria. The only kind of contamination it could get is if a third party walked up and starting touching everything.”

With these towers, Hein said Missouri State’s Association for the Advancement of Suitability in Higher Education score will rise. This score determines how sustainable a campus is, and according to Hein, these towers will boost the university’s current score.

“The money savings is not huge but the carbon savings of not transporting foods from California or Mexico, that’s where the real savings are,” Hein said.

Besides becoming more green, Hein said the structures have an excellent harvest rate, as well as other features that make it worthwhile.

“Every 30 to 40 days you can harvest a tower and each harvest we get about seven to 10 pounds of food,” Hein said. “There are 16 towers so in theory, we should get a maximum of 160 lbs off every rack. It (also) uses 70 percent less water and you don’t use pesticides and there is no fertilizer.”

Besides these, the food will generate excess during off months in which Hein has special plans for.

“The other thing we want to do with this is when we’re not open, like over the winter holiday, we are going get some LED lights to keep growing them and donate the food to the Ozark Food Bank,” Hein said.

Eventually, the pair want to expand these two structures on campus. Hein said that plans for purchasing more towers are already in the works.

“The ultimate dream is we have an area in Kentwood that is open and we want to put 80 of these towers in there, and we want to hire three Missouri State interns,” Hein said. “The agricultural department will run it and it will teach students hydroponics and sustainability, and we will continue to grow food for the community.”

According to Hein, the system will provide students with an unique opportunity to learn about modern farming.

“A lot of people feel this is really the future so because you come to a university to learn, we wanted to do something that would help teach people about where the future of agriculture may be going,” Hein said.

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