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Cultivating the Future of Urban Agriculture

October 28, 2011

By Matthew Boxler

The future of urban agriculture is being cultivated in the basement of a Salve Regina dormitory, where biology students spent their summer experimenting with hydroponics – a new way of gardening that could reshape both the farming industry and how people grow food.

“Hydroponic systems grow plants in water; they don’t need as much land, there aren’t any bugs, there’s no need for pesticides, and the fertilizers are going right into the water, so you’re not spraying it on the land,” said Dr. Jameson Chace, assistant professor of biology and biomedical sciences. “It’s all about research and development… an experiment to figure out how you get the plants to grow the fastest with the most nutrition.”

Two of his students spent the summer monitoring, measuring and recording everything that happens in the lab, studying everything from nutrient levels to kilowatts used. They maintain a daily lab notebook, generate data sheets, and are writing a how-to manual to help guide future students in their pursuit of inquiry-based science education.

The students have harvested arugula, collard greens, basil, parsley, spinach, Swiss chard, and three kinds of lettuce. The greens are now being eaten and given away, but once the farm is certified, the produce it grows could be offered in the University’s dining hall.

Proving the commercial viability of hydroponic farming is a primary focus of the research here, says Irving Backman, the entrepreneur who donated equipment to build the grow house.

“Hopefully, this small experiment will lead to a larger commercial grow house that will be operated by patients with spinal cord injuries at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital,” Backman said. “As both land and water become scarce, hydroponic gardening will become even more essential to help us grow crops.”

Best of all, the grow house can run on only $142 a month, which covers the cost of electricity, pumps, lights, nutrient solutions and seeds.

Sister Leona Misto, the university’s vice president for mission integration and planning, helped get the hydroponic garden equipment and start the process. She explained that this project will continue at Salve Regina and will branch out to a technical high school this fall under the supervision of one of the university’s students.

Salve Regina’s science majors, together with Boston College students, are figuring out ways to make their small experiment work in a big way. That kind of collaboration makes Chace optimistic about the future.

“Our goal is to get other schools to come see what we are doing so they can go back and grow something simple at first, like sprouts,” Chace said. “The future of agriculture can’t be based on land because there’s not enough land for all the people who live in the urban environment. The land that we do have is usually contaminated; it’s at a premium, and the growing season is really short.”

Chace says that most of the world’s people – usually the most impoverished – live in places that are the greatest distance from food sources. “There is a real concern about food availability and food security,” Chace added. “One way to solve this is by bringing it indoors.”

This was adapted from an article that appeared in Report from Newport, a magazine of Salve Regina University, which was founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1947.

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