Cristopher Williams, operations chef and farm manager of UNT’s Mean Greens Café, is in charge of that step and for the past year has tried his hand at vertical hydroponic gardening. And this garden, housed inside a refurbished trailer from a semitruck, isn’t just for show. Every week, Williams is pulling out between 650 and 750 heads of lettuce, enough to supply the whole café with enough left over to go share with other dining halls on campus.
About a year ago, the UNT culinary crew saw a trailer like this at a trade show, and one thing led to another. Last spring, the trailer was delivered, and thanks to companies that specialize in this, it was an easy process, Williams says.
A new life off the road
“This is a standard shipping container, like what you’d see on a semitruck,” Williams says. “You could retrofit something like this yourself, but there’s a company out of Boston, Freight Farms, that specializes in this.”
Vertical, hydroponic growing
Williams went to a three-day training session with Freight Farms to learn how to plant, care for the plants, harvest and maintain the trailer farm. This system uses minimal energy and just one gallon of water per day to continuously bathe the plants’ roots in highly oxygenated water that’s rich in nutrients. It’s proven to yield faster results than growing plants in dirt.
Hydroponic vs. aquaponic
The distinction between hydroponic and aquaponic farming is the fact that while both use nutrient-rich water, hydroponic farming does not use fish waste to supply those nutrients. That makes it the more vegan-friendly option of the two.
The control panel
Everything is time- and temperature-controlled, and I have remote access through my cell phone to keep an eye on it,” Williams says. “This is basically a working, living, breathing machine. It requires me to do my part and I require it to do its part and we come together and it results in produce.”
Plants sprout before they go into the vertical system. Williams has been able to successfully grow several varieties of lettuce, a few brassicas, kale and microgreens as well. But it’s primarily to get the lettuce, he says.
Ready, set, grow!
The LED lighting helps the plants get growing, no matter the weather outside. Systems like this can work in just about any climate.
Starting small, big savings, cutting out the middle man
Since the Mean Greens dining hall is UNT’s premier plant-based spot, “I use a lot of produce here,” Williams says. Still, the trailer farm is keeping up. “I’ve basically cut out my lettuce purveyors.”
Williams says the trailer farm has been a point of interest, especially for visiting alumni looking to find out what’s new on campus. “They’re fascinated by it,” he says.