Leafy Green Machine Planted at Clark

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Photo By Erin McKeon

Photo By Erin McKeon

It may be well below freezing outside, but inside a shipping container in the Maywood Street parking lot it’s 82 degrees. This is no ordinary shipping container: it’s a hydroponic Freight Farm called the Leafy Green Machine (LGM).

Developed by Jon Friedman and Clark alum Brad McNamara (MBA/MS ‘13), co-founders of the Boston-based company Freight Farms, the LGM will grow lettuce for Clark Dining Services.

With the help of water and electricity from the neighboring Lasry Center for Bioscience, the LGM mimics sunlight using LED lighting and irrigates floor-to-ceiling “growing towers” of seedlings with nutrient-rich water. A control panel and sensors within the container monitor and maintain a climate-controlled environment, while wifi, a camera, and a mobile app allow for remote monitoring.

Though much of the roughly seven-week-long growing process relies on technology, hands-on involvement is still necessary. Once the farm becomes operational, which Dining Services hopes will happen by the end of this week, graduate students Kamalan Chandran (MSIT ‘16) and Rebecca Miller (‘15 ES&P ‘16) will attend to the plants daily. They will also harvest the lettuce weekly, once a regular cycle of germination is established.

Michael Newmark, general manager of Dining Services, expressed his excitement over the LGM’s potential, calling it “the Leafy Green Dream.”

At its peak, the LGM could produce up to five hundred heads of lettuce a week. According to Newmark, Dining Services uses approximately 1,100 heads of lettuce each week. Taking into account that the typical Freight Farm lettuce is about half the size of the lettuce Clark currently uses, Newmark can envision enough lettuce to supply one station during one meal period each day, although he does not expect to see such results right away.

Newmark also emphasized that the Freight Farm fits into Clark’s vision to “expand and move ahead with green initiatives,” and called its purchase a “true collaboration” between the University, Dining Services, and the Office of Sustainability.

Director of Sustainability Jenny Isler worked with McNamara when he was a graduate student interested in approaching local, sustainable farming from a social entrepreneurship perspective. With Isler’s support, McNamara and Friedman built the first LGM prototype in 2012 on Clark’s campus. The unit stood in the parking lot of Clark’s Recycling Center while McNamara, with the help of Clark students, experimented with different techniques, designs, and plants.

Photo By Erin McKeon

Photo By Erin McKeon

Heather Vaillette, then-general manager of Dining Services and current district manager for Sodexo Campus Services, even purchased basil from the original Freight Farm for Dining Services’ use.

In a blog post on Freight Farms’ website, McNamara acknowledges Clark’s fundamental role in the LGM’s development. He writes, “Clark was able to give Jon and I [sic] the support to build upon our shared vision from paper to prototype and jump-start the journey to where Freight Farms is today.

Four years later, “it’s come a long way,” said Isler. Miller, who helped with the original prototype as an undergraduate, agreed. “It’s great to see it come full circle,” she said.

While Isler is thrilled that the LGM has returned to its roots – a move she and McNamara had been discussing since he graduated – “the most exciting aspect” for her has been the LGM’s impact on the Real Food Challenge.

In April 2013, Clark became the first university in Massachusetts to sign the Real Food Commitment of having 20 percent “real food” – locally sourced, ecologically sound, fair trade, and humanely raised food – in Dining Services by 2020.

Though lettuce grown in the LGM fits the locally sourced requirement, the Real Food Challenge (RFC), the national body organizing the commitment campaign, measures real food in terms of purchases and invoices. Since Dining Services won’t actually be buying the individual heads of lettuce produced in the LGM, it initially seemed as though the lettuce would not count towards the 20 percent goal.

However, student chair of Clark’s Food Systems Working Group  and Food Truth E-Board member Hannah Silverfine (‘16) worked with the RFC’s national office to find a way to make all the lettuce count.

Photo By Erin McKeon

Photo By Erin McKeon

Isler applauded Clark’s ability to enact change within a national organization, calling it “the systemic change that needs to happen in sustainability.”

Silverfine shared Isler’s excitement over the LGM’s impact, not only on the RFC but also on Clark. “As a student, I am really excited to see the impact that the legacy of another student will have on how we can shift the sourcing of food in our dining halls towards a more sustainable norm,” she said.

The LGM is currently at Clark on an eight-month lease, which began on Jan. 15. Clark Business Manager Paul Wykes told Clark News Hub that this trial period will allow the University to see if the LGM financially benefits Dining Services, which will determine the University’s future with Freight Farms.

In the meantime, Newmark is considering introducing a Freight Farms signature salad at the Bistro, while Isler is already planning a harvest party during Clark Earth Week 2016 to celebrate the first large crop of lettuce – maybe even involving a “salad bonanza.”

With the first seeds ready to be planted any day now, hopes for the LGM run high.