freight farm

Saint Joseph’s College Embarks Upon Hydroponic Farming

By Elyse Caiazzo ’18

Behind Pearson’s Café, a 320-square-foot shipping container provides over 1,000 students, faculty and staff with fresh, local, and sustainable lettuce, hearty greens, and herbs. The container holds over 4,500 plants in 256 vertical hydroponic towers which are nurtured by two Saint Joseph’s College staff members, Hilary Lamkin and Sue Wilson.

As part of Hannaford Supermarkets’ and Saint Joseph’s College’s missions for sustainability, the two enterprises collaborated to provide the College with the opportunity to house the first Freight Farm in Maine. Freight Farm, a Boston-based agriculture technology company, builds shipping containers with environmental controls and indoor growing technology for fresh food production in any environment.

The company’s mission strives to eliminate the negative effects of food production and distribution, empowering anyone to grow year-round local, fresh produce anywhere. The Leafy Green Machine™ generously donated by Hannaford’s Supermarket, grows crops hydroponically, without soil or sunlight, in a planter with nutrient rich peat moss, an irrigation system, and red and blue LED lights.

By vertically growing the food, the container maximizes space production and creates a high-density growing environment. Each 320-square-foot box can use less than ten gallons of water a day because it captures humidity and filters it back into the farm; that’s about 90% less water than a traditional farm needs.

This summer, Sue and Hilary spent two days in Boston working with the many Freight Farm experts on how to operate the entire system from electrical and technological, to the efficient process of growing without playing in the soil. Starting with germination, each tray consists of 200 peat moss pods with seeds immersed inside, with a lid covering the whole tray, allowing the first sprout to blossom.

After one week, the tray moves under LED lights with proper nutrient water saturating into each pod. The leafy greens are ready to be transferred to the vertical towers after two weeks of growth. The farm stays at a cool temperature of 50 degrees for maximum production. When staff enter the Freight Farm in the morning, the leafy greens have already gone through their “day time” exposure to 18 hours of LED lighting from 3 p.m. to 9 a.m.

Sue and Hilary are thrilled to be working in such a new and innovative space and enjoy every step of the process from planting to harvesting. They hope to eventually provide all the lettuce necessary for Pearson’s Café and are working hard to achieve that goal in the months to come.

As students walk up to the salad bar, they will have a true connection with their food by knowing and seeing the workers inside the Freight Farm. This exposure could lead to many opportunities for students interested in hydroponics to work directly with the freight farmers and the innovative technology powering the Leafy Green Machine.™

Photo caption: Saint Joseph’s College operates the first Freight Farm in Maine, which grows leafy greens and herbs using nutrients, red and blue LED lights, and vertical hydroponic towers. Staff members Sue Wilson (foreground) and Hilary Lamkin work to provide nearly all leafy greens necessary for Pearson’s Cafe. Photo: Emma Deans.

Seeds of Change

Seedlings growing in the CollegePhoto: Elyse Caiazzo ’18

The Freight Farm is the first iteration of a much larger venture at the College: the Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation. On September 21, 2017, Saint Joseph’s College announced the launch of the Institute For Local Food Systems Innovation. With startup funds of nearly $4 million (through a federal grant and private donations) the institute will boost production for Maine’s local food and beverage industry. At the press conference, U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree said, “The Institute will fill key needs to strengthen our food system and grow our economy in Maine.” She noted that it will support the creation of new jobs, “which is perfectly in line with the Greater Portland region’s goals of doubling the region’s food manufacturing employment in ten years.”

To pursue the goal of enhancing economic development regionally, the College will build a food processing kitchen, develop competency-based educational programming, expand the current land-based crop and livestock farm, and enhance agritourism operations. And, in an operation much larger than the Freight Farm, the College will build a ¼ acre hydroponic greenhouse which will grow produce using mineral nutrient solutions rather than soil.