- Associated Press - Monday, February 26, 2018

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Around 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Allix Ice, 22, a senior dietetics and nutrition major, stepped into a steel shipping container and began her duties.

She confirmed that the thermostat was at 60 degrees and started pushing lettuce from one end of the container to the other.

By day’s end, Ice said “anywhere between 20 and 40 pounds” of produce is bagged and shipped to a restaurant at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, called Where the Wild Greens AR.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that hydroponics, a method of growing without soil, has been a rising trend in the United States as shoppers continue to seek local, organic foods.

While results vary (one farmer said that hydroponic strawberries are bland), a few Arkansans are finding success growing lettuce and herbs hydroponically. They claim it’s the future of farming.

Inside the university’s 40-foot container, known as the Leafy Green Machine, about 260 vertical panels can hold more than 3,000 lettuce heads. A section of Rex butterhead or arugula lettuce is harvested weekly.

Ashley Meek, the campus director of nutrition and wellness, said UA is the third campus to partner with Boston-based Freight Farms. As of December, there are 20 schools that have similar partnerships with the ag-tech company.

The student-run container is a joint project between the campus catering company, Chartwells, and the university. Meek said Chartwells spent $97,000 on the container, and the university spent $15,000 on installation expenses. It became operational in August 2016.

Since then about 25,000 lettuce heads have been harvested for Where the Wild Greens AR.

Inside the repurposed shipping container is a sign that says that it uses 90 percent less water and electricity than a greenhouse or traditional field; growing conditions can be controlled via mobile app; and it can produce 12 times the equivalent of one conventional farm acre in a year.

Considering input costs, Meek said the container saves them about 40 cents per lettuce head. No school credit is awarded to the students who volunteer there, but Meek said there are plans to change that.

Hydroponics is “technology of the future” and can help meet rising food demand, Ice said. “I think it’s going to become very big.”

The U.S. hydroponic industry has grown consistently the past five years and is projected to continue, albeit more slowly, into 2022, according to market research group IBISWorld. Industry revenue rose 3.4 percent to a total of $848 million the past five years ending 2017, market data show. Its outlook declined to a yearly rate of 0.2 percent until 2022.

Jerry Miller, a Vietnam War veteran, bought his Leafy Green Machine almost three years ago. He is working with two other veterans, Alan Altom and Darryl Hill, to operate their business, Vet Veggies, in Springdale.

Its mission it to provide local produce to restaurants and retailers and show younger military veterans how they can support themselves without working behind a desk or breaking the bank.

Often 20-year-old veterans come home, find it hard to work a nine-to-five job, and try to make a living farming, Miller said.

“The average age of a farmer is 58 years old,” he said. “Veterans that are 28 can’t go into farming because they can’t afford it.”

However, Miller said harvesting lettuce in a 320-square-foot trailer takes up less space, costs less and grants a guaranteed crop weekly. His business model shows that it can support a family of four or five, he said.

Since Vet Veggies began in August 2015, they’ve secured agreements with various restaurants within a 10-15 mile radius of the farm. Their lettuce can be found in Northwest Arkansas at Mockingbird Cafe, Jose’s and Eleven at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, among other locations.

Vet Veggies recently earned a $25,000 award that will allow the purchase a larger container to more than double existing capacity.

As of December, according to Freight Farms, there are more than 160 shipping containers repurposed to grow vegetables in 36 states and 10 countries.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

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