Inside a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse in west Baltimore at the end of June, untended basil plants were falling over and going to seed. School was out, so the farmers—students at public charter school Green Street Academy—had abandoned their crops for the summer.
No matter: Right after the July 4th holiday, a group would be back in the space for a five-week entrepreneurship program, during which they’d be trained to tend to the plants and technology and learn business skills. Since hydroponic farms don’t have to adhere to traditional growing seasons and accelerate plant growth, the herbs would get back on track in no time.
The greenhouse, which was completed last year, is one example of a new wave of middle- and high schools around the country that are embracing hydroponic farming. Advances in technology coupled with steady decreases in price make hydroponics an appealing interdisciplinary teaching tool—as well as a way to produce fresh, healthy food for students in the cafeteria and their broader communities.
In hydroponics, well-funded startup companies growing vegetables at a mind-boggling scale using high-tech sensors and robots tend to get all the attention. Those companies are making bold claims around the superiority of their systems on metrics such as climate impact and resilience—even as unanswered questions about energy use, impacts on workers and small farms, health, and profitability linger.
But hydroponic systems deserve the spotlight for another reason, said J.J. Reidy, the founder and CEO of a real estate design company that helped build and raise funds for the Green Street greenhouse. They can be plugged into a long list of places—including food banks, low-income housing developments, and schools—where land access and other factors make outdoor farming a challenge. And while the upfront cost is significant, they can produce more food year-round in small spaces, which changes the value calculation. “We have to look at growing food in urban environments,” he said. “So, how do you leverage and activate underutilized space?”
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