Romaine lettuce and assorted other greens are growing inside on a brisk fall day in Wolfville.
A shipping container that has been repurposed as a hydroponic growing area for greens and micro greens, is located not far from the doors of Acadia’s Wheelock dining hall, where the greens are destined for use in the dining hall or for catering by Chartwells, the university’s food service provider.
When it comes to eating local, it doesn’t get much closer than this. The container system is produced by Canadian company The Growcer, and went into use at Acadia this fall.
“To make our footprint a little bit smaller in the world as far as bringing in local product to the students as fresh and as easily as we can is really exciting,” says Chartwell executive chef Peter Welton.
“That we can grow our own product and maybe avoid some of the recalls that the world seems to be having on lettuce now especially, and get fresh produce to our students, is fantastic.”
At 180-225 kilograms of greens a month the operation won’t come close to filling the university’s needs, but it helps, Welton said.
Water is recycled as it evaporates in the system, which uses 95 per cent less water than conventional farming. There are no herbicides or pesticides, and the proximity means a small carbon footprint. The system doesn’t use much power, and there is an option to set up solar panels to reduce that even further.
Ten per cent of what is grown is donated to Acadia’s Food Cupboard, a program to assist students with emergency food supplies.
It takes about two weeks for the greens to mature to the point they can be harvested and used. Helping with that is Emma Kaye, a third-year nutrition student who is an employee and looks after the plants from the planting stage on.
She’s never worked in a hydroponic grow operation, but has spent time working in community gardens.
“It’s completely different from regular gardening,” she said. “There’s definitely a learning curve.”
She said knowing that the food is going right to students “is really cool … I think people are really enjoying it and it feels awesome to help out like that.”
Jodie Noiles, Acadia’s sustainability coordinator, said the unit builds on Acadia’s commitment to buy and use local produce as much as possible.
The Growcer is located on the site of the university’s original community farm, which was used after Acadia’s founding to feed the entire campus — back when total enrolment was 300 students.
“It’s about growing greens, but also having a greener campus by having a low footprint through production on campus,” Noiles said.
The university has a food services plan for campus that was created by a committee of Acadia students, faculty, and staff, along with public health experts. It focuses on healthy eating, sustainability, and affordability.
Acadia created a new community farm near the soccer fields about a decade ago, where students operate a half-acre educational garden and grow vegetables for the dining hall and local food bank. There is also a student group, Acadia Food and Fork, that grows beans, lettuce, and tomatoes in the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre to share with students.
The Growcer is more about showcase innovations in food production, she said, and “we’re really not moving in a direction of producing all our food for campus. That wouldn’t be feasible and it’s still really important for us to support our local farmers and neighbours here in the Valley. We do purchase a lot of food from our local growers, and that’s our priority.”