Western Washington University students from last year’s Environmental Stewardship class are exploring an often overlooked frontier in agriculture: hydroponics, an indoor method of growing plants where roots are submerged in a water-based nutrient solution.
The students are working to set up a demonstrative hydroponic system to display in the first-floor study area of the biology building by Friday, Feb. 28, to educate Western about this clean, alternative method of producing food.
The purpose of the display is to inform people about the advantages of hydroponics as a way of growing food locally, senior Mikey Moran said. It will be a resource for prospective hydroponic farmers.
This small-scale hydroponics display is funded by the Green Energy Fee paid by each student. The coordinators of the project got a small grant of $780, which will buy all necessary materials and energy consumed, said senior Allison Fina, one of the students working on the project.
Three workshops will be held throughout the school year starting at the end of winter quarter to educate students and members of the community about how they can set up their own hydroponic systems, Fina said.
The plants will sit in floating net pots with holes in the bottom and filled with clay pebbles. Lamps will be hung above the plants to provide sunlight.
The floating pots allow roots to be submerged in a water tank where they will be supplied with nutrients and constant hydration, Moran said. The display will consist of a 15-gallon tank that will house six lettuce plants for the first run.
Hydroponics is cool because it’s completely self-contained, Moran said.
“It limits our dependence on water resources and use of pesticides, and there’s not an issue of runoff into local water bodies as in traditional agriculture.”
In large-scale hydroponics, water is recycled through the system, and no chemicals enter surrounding ecosystems as with soil-based growing.
Hydroponics is important to explore on both local and worldwide levels, Moran said.
It’s a good method for efficiently growing produce in dry areas, where agricultural conditions are unstable, because the setup is indoors, she said.
In an ideal situation, hydroponics requires very little energy and maintenance to run, she said.
“The energy input to power the lights and grow the plants is better overall than the energy it takes to put a bunch of lettuce on refrigerated trucks from California,” said Brian Rusk, a geology professor involved in the project.
Advocates of hydroponic agriculture say this method allows people to grow their produce in the same place it is consumed, Moran said.
“In terms of campus life, students should care because we can conceivably grow our own food on campus, and there’s a lot of resistance to the way our food is provided on campus right now,” Moran said. “The more autonomy we can place in students’ hands, the better.”
This shift toward on-campus agriculture can already be seen on campus in the Associated Students Outback Farm, Moran said. But if hydroponics were utilized, there could be year-round on-campus food production.
“It is a spark of hope that local food can not only be local to our community, but even local to our campus,” Moran said.
Rusk hopes the project can expand to a large scale, he said.
Hydroponics allows any space to become a garden, and Western’s greenhouse could support a bigger hydroponic operation, he said.
The students wish to inspire others to continue expanding the use of hydroponics at Western to create a clean, local source of food.
Editor's note: Mikey Moran was opinion editor of the Western Front in winter 2013 but no longer is affiliated with the Front. Currently she is the editor-in-chief of The Planet.