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Books, computers and…lettuce?

A nook at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Polk Library is housing a state-of-the-art hydroponic unit. The tender green lettuce that is sprouting—especially throughout winter and spring—will provide a welcomed healthy produce option at Lutheran Food Pantry in Oshkosh.

“My hope for this partnership is that it will be a tangible example for students, staff and the community of what it looks like to have various organizations working together to benefit the community,” said Abigail (Knoll) Miedaner, of Jericho Road Ministries (JRM) Lutheran Food Pantry, recipient of the harvested lettuce.

A 2013 UW Oshkosh graduate who majored in biology and minored in chemistry, Miedaner said the lettuce can be grown from seed to harvest in as little as three weeks. Growth, though, is dependent on many variables.

She said she is very interested to find out about the variables in Polk Library and how the lettuce responds. Small plugs of rockwool growing medium that contained tiny romaine and green star lettuce plants were inserted into the hydroponics unit Feb. 27. By late March, the first crop of lettuce should be on someone’s table for dinner.

The hydroponics unit will be operated at Polk Library for the spring semester and likely be moved to another location for summer. The unit may be returned to Polk when school is back in session in fall.

“Fresh produce in food pantries is difficult to obtain and keep, especially in winter, and we have no control over the quality of the produce we receive,” Miedaner said. “One of the ways that we are seeking to address this issue is to grow produce ourselves right at the food pantry.”

The Flex Farm hydroponics machine at UW Oshkosh was donated by Aurora Health Care and is the fourth machine generating crops for the JRM Lutheran Food Pantry. The machine is the newest Flex Farm hydroponics grow machine available from Fork Farms, based in Appleton. Schools, restaurants and nonprofit businesses are among Fork Farms’ clients.

Lots and lots of lettuce!

With hydroponics, plants mature in a growing medium with a nutrient solution. The practice allows plants to grow year-round and it minimizes exposure to environmental damage, disease and insects.

Monthly cost of electricity, water and supplies is estimated to run around $50. The units produce about 150 heads of lettuce a month—equating to around 33 cents each.

The Lutheran Food Pantry serves 350-400 Winnebago County families monthly. Each client can use the pantry once per month, so leaders stress the importance of high-quality, long-lasting food being available.

UW Oshkosh senior environmental studies student Elijah Tesch, of Oconomowoc, is overseeing the planting of seeds and harvesting of the lettuce.

“My role in this project is to maintain the machine and make sure the lettuce is growing,” Tesch said. “When the lettuce is fully grown, I’ll harvest it and bring it to the Lutheran Food Pantry on Division Street.”

Tesch stops by several times a week to check on water level, pH and nutrient level of the water. Once a month, he’ll harvest and then re-plant the hydroponics unit.

Lights are on 24 hours a day to start. A timer reduces the amount of light to 18 hours per day and then 14 hours a day, as it mimics a natural light cycle.

Focus on sustainability

There are some unique opportunities in partnering with the University, Miedaner said, adding that they would like to try some other crops, including spinach, in the Flex Farm unit.

“The University has equipment, which would allow us to gather data that may be beneficial for us and other growers,” she said, “and would provide additional opportunities for student learning and engagement.”

Kevin Crawford, a chemistry professor who is director of the University’s Sustainability Institute for Regional Transformations, said hydroponic and aquaponic startup companies and nonprofits are appearing throughout northeastern Wisconsin. The partnership with Jericho Road Ministries gives students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience while helping address poverty issues in Oshkosh.

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