Step inside Georgia State’s lean, mean Leafy Green Machine

From left: Panther Dining Team members Betsy Rivera-Ocasio, assistant director, Lenore Musick, executive director and Cameron Thompson Sous Chef on their first tour of the Freight Farms in Boston.

By Grace Huseth

As our world becomes more and more sustainable, shipping freights no longer transport food. They grow them. Rooftop gardens are now being phased out in favor of upcycled shipping containers that house a fully functional hydroponic farm. Their efficiency, both in in growth and space, caught the eye of Georgia State University as a way to locally source greens.

Located just behind the Piedmont North student housing complex, Georgia State’s Leafy Green Machine has been configured for the immediate growth of a variety of crops like lettuce, kale, spinach and other herbs. Its innovative climate technology and growing equipment allow for the perfect environment year round.

“When the farm was first delivered last summer, I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we would be growing crops 365 days per year with no soil or sunlight required. I just remember when we harvested our first round of produce the pride that our department felt – none of us are farmers! – in knowing that we made this happen and having the ability to fulfil our duty in providing our patrons with fresh and tasty food, straight from our backyard,” said Lenore Musick, Executive Director, PantherDining and Sustainability Initiatives at Georgia State.

A step inside the Leafy Green Machine is like touring the most efficient greenhouse ever created. The shipping container is able to hold a nursery area, where seeds germinate and grow, and vertical growing towers that can hold as many as 3,600 plants at one time. Some rave-worthy LED lighting strips mimic the sun’s natural light by providing growth-optimized blue and red hues while a closed loop hydroponic system delivers a nutrient rich water solution directly to roots, using only 10 gallons of water a day.

Shipping container gardens were first developed by Boston company Freight Farms in 2010. The founders were looking for new methods of rooftop greenhouse farming, but research revealed many of their plans would be costly and time intensive. At the time, people were getting creative with shipping containers by making tiny houses and other innovative, upcycling projects. Freight Farms simply retrofitted their greenhouse technology to fit inside a shipping container and have created technology that is changing the way people perceive farming.

“At first, no one understood the concept of growing inside shipping containers. In just five years, Freight Farms has shipped Leafy Green Machines all over the United States. It’s the perfect outside environment, inside,” said Caroline Katsiroubas, community manager at Freight Farms. “It gives people an opportunity to make an impact in the food system in a tangible way.”

There are now 100 Leafy Green Machines across the globe and nearly 15 at schools and universities. Georgia State’s Leafy Green Machine provides the opportunity to integrate sustainable food production into current operations to make high-quality, local food part of Panther Dining. The Leafy Green Machine educates students on the journey their food takes farm-to- table while fostering a culture of social responsibility.

The university laid the groundwork for the first seedling tray of Red Butterhead lettuce in early July and harvested it at the beginning of September. This spring, Georgia State began adding Buttercrunch, Sparx and a gourmet lettuce mix to the farm. A taste can be found on salads or in sandwiches at Miss Demeanor’s or Centennial Café on Georgia State’s campus.

“With Georgia State’s campus situated in Downtown, one of the main draws of implementing the farm was the desire to show other universities that sustainable produce is possible even in an urban environment,” said Musick. Georgia State has hosted many open houses of the Leafy Green Machine, inviting schools like UGA, Clark Atlanta, Tech and Emory to check out the farm and piquing their interest in acquiring a one-acre farm.

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