US (IL): Federal ag grant to elevate hydroponic lettuce production

Collaborative agriculture research at Western Illinois University, with a boost from a recently-awarded federal grant, means opportunities for faculty and students to study hydroponic lettuce production, with the aid of hyperspectral reflectance technology, in future semesters.

WIU Agriculture Assistant Professors Shelby Henning and Dan Atherton began collaborating two years ago, when Henning and his horticulture students, along with technical assistance from Atherton, built a small hydroponic lettuce production system in the Ag Mech Shop in Knoblauch Hall’s basement. The system was constructed of inexpensive materials, the bulk of which was PVC pipe, silicone caulk and recycled lumber. A single horticultural LED lamp served as the only light source for the lettuce grown in the student-made system.

“Basically, we wanted to see if our simple system using the PVC pipe would work,” said Henning. “It worked extraordinarily well, which flew in the face of what I thought would happen.”

The two professors quickly learned the expertise each possesses melded together naturally into the indoor lettuce production project – Henning contributing (soft science) vegetable production expertise and Atherton with (hard science) computer science and precision agriculture components.

Henning and Atherton have since been refining the production of ‘Rex’ butterhead lettuce using two prototype lettuce production systems that use rectangular, commercial-grade hydroponic channels in lieu of round PVC pipe, and multiple LED lighting units, to provide sufficient light for all of the growing plants. Atherton and students in his shop skills class constructed the second prototype system, using the first system Atherton had created as a model.

Henning and Atherton are now attempting to improve nutrient recommendations for hydroponic lettuce in order to save producers both time and input costs.

“The nutrient solution within the system is replaced at set dates to determine the optimal time frame for replacement,” Atherton said. “Some advantages of the lettuce grown in this hydroponic system are that no pesticides are used, the timeframe from planting to harvest is greatly accelerated and the shelf-life of the crop far surpasses that to lettuce grown in the field.”

Read more at The McDonough Country Voice.

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