March 23, 2011

Student group plants seed for hydroponic farm on campus

Posted: March 23, 2011
Roo@ASU members Gabriel Sanchez, Joshua Judd and Kim Bellotti view prototype designs.
ASU students and Roo@ASU members Gabriel Sanchez, Joshua Judd and Kim Bellotti check out prototype designs of innovative farm systems. Roo@ASU is looking to create a hydroponic farm on the Tempe campus.

A dedicated group of ASU students are laying the foundation to an innovative approach to growing food.

The best part is, they don’t have to worry about getting their hands dirty.

For Roo@ASU, a local chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a nationally recognized thinktank, their solution to raise naturally grown, nutrient rich food comes in the form of hydroponic farming.

“Simply put, it is a way of growing plants in a nutrient-solution using water but no soil,” said Gabriel Sanchez, sustainability senior. Sanchez is one of three team members that make up Roo@ASU.

“We are harnessing emerging agricultural technologies,” Sanchez said. “We are establishing a new model which we call New American Agriculture that will create work, wealth and health for ASU and our community. Coming from ASU, a(n) (Ashoka) Changemaker Campus, a leader in innovation, we really take that as motivation to keep doing innovative things with our project.”

Vertical hydroponic farming systems allow for high density vegetable production, which maximizes the use of water and nutrients and produces higher crop yields. The pots, which are linked together, share water from a reservoir tank that circulates throughout the system. The system is much more energy and water efficient than traditional farming, Sanchez said.

The all-student group is the first to use the innovative approach while starting an urban garden.

The farm would consist of more than 2 dozen tower-like structures that contain a mixture of plants growing in pots stacked on top of one another, creating an efficient use of space geared toward an urban setting where space is at a premium. In total the farm system will contain more than 200 individual pots for growing a variety of crops which could include lettuce, spinach, peppers, various kinds of herbs and strawberries. Later, the farm can be adapted for more pots.

“Vertical hydroponic systems are also very easy to expand, maintain and operate, which makes them ideal to be used in an institutional setting,” Sanchez said.

ASU students and Roosevelt Institute fellows Kimi Bellotti, an urban planning senior and Joshua Judd, a philosophy junior, make up the rest of the team.

Roo@ASU began in August of 2010 and has progressed steadily, taking root in the Tempe community and seeking an on-campus home for their hydroponic farm that they hope will fill the demand for healthy, locally grown foods.

“The Tempe campus is food desert,” Belloti said. “There is limited access to fresh, healthy food – a problem easily solved by our initiative.”

On top of building a sustaining business model by creating a pathway for Tempe residents to eat locally grown food, the group also hopes to establish internships where students can work directly with the hydroponic farm, adding an educational level to their initiative.

“We are aiming for social embeddeness,” Bellotti said. “Particularly student embeddesness. We are planning to develop a program that establishes a way for students to run the hydroponic garden. Basically, an opportunity to create internships.”

Roo@ASU already has received a grant from The Roosevelt Institute that will cover a little more than 15 percent of the estimated $3,000 it will take to fully implement the farm. The group plans to start growing vegetables within six months and have already begun outreach to local farmers markets and businesses.

The group plans to be growing crops by fall 2011.