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US: University of Washington students experiment with farming system

Founded in 1861, Washington is one of the oldest universities on the West Coast and a public research university. Project IF (Indoor farm) is a small hydroponic farm housed in the basement of an on-campus academic building. This registered student organization (RSO) grows fresh food without the need for soil in hydroponic ZipGrow Towers. With no windows in sight, LED lights recreate the sun.

Zipgrow recently caught up with three leads from the club- Maxwell Wang (President), Amelie Gahagan (Farm Manager), and Anna Phillips (Outreach Lead) to find out more about the project and how it benefits their University and their community. 

Interactive and Interdisciplinary
“We are a student-run club focusing on promoting hydroponic education as well as providing resources for students to do hands-on learning in the farm,” explains Maxwell, a third-year computer science and statistics major.

“The best part of this project is how interdisciplinary it is.” continues Amelie, who is in her second year of an Environmental Studies major. “We also have project groups that will work on niche projects that will optimize the farm in some way.” This includes a new crops group, an automation group, and more research-based groups. 

“Anyone can join the project. It’s open to everyone, which is what I love about the club,” adds Anna, a first-year political science and global studies major. Some members are also Computer Science Majors trying to automate the system.

Their farm setup consists of two double-sided education racks with thirty-two 5-foot Towers and LED lights. There is also a seedling station with an ebb and flow system. 

Project IF - The first of its kind on Campus
Founded in 2016 by Kurt Kung, a postdoctoral Bioengineering researcher at the Pollack Lab, Project IF aimed to explore the feasibility of vertical farming on Campus and to show the feasibility of indoor growing to other Universities. Kurt secured funding from the Campus Sustainability Fund (CSF) and recruited other students to help operate the farm. He went on to win a Husky Green Award, which recognizes individuals and groups across all of the University of Washington campuses who lead the way for sustainability.

During the lockdowns of the Covid -19 pandemic, the technology sat unused for several months. “There was a period during covid when there were not any clubs on campus,” Maxwell explains, “so we brought the Towers back to life in 2021.” 

And Maxwell means this, quite literally, as the living walls have been growing fresh leafy greens and herbs.  

“Basil has been an absolute success on our farm; club members love it,” says Amelie. “We’ve hosted basil pesto potlucks which was a core part of bringing our club together and grows really well in the Towers.” 

This new wave of students re-launched Project IF as a Registered Student Organization (RSO), which they indicated was a simple process. However, as an RSO, they have specific responsibilities to contribute to the campus and the funders. It’s why they have shifted more towards education and research rather than selling produce as a business.

“Not many of us were very knowledgeable about hydroponics,” explains Amelie, “so we really started learning the basics. We worked with the systems, which became an educational space for learning about hydroponics and teaching others about it. Our goals are shaped by who we support, and we are very focused on outreach and research.” 

Now that members have more experience, the club is expanding into research. They recently tried ornamental flowers and pepper for the first time. Since the start of the year, they have grown eight new crops, including arugula, bell peppers, chocolate bell peppers, marigolds, kale, basil, and mint. “There has been a lot of development on that side of the project, which I am happy to see,” says Amelie.   

“As we are developing new crops, we definitely want to document their progress,” explains Anna. “We take many photographs throughout the growing process so that we have that to look back on. We are also creating a farm book that we can put in all the data that we use, including pH and EC levels for each crop type, in a creative way”. The goal is to provide this as a resource at some of their workshops and tours.

The group has benefited from supplies of nutrients and grow plugs still available from operations of the first funded round of students. “We haven’t exhausted any of that yet,” says Maxwell. However, there are ongoing costs for resources, printing, seeds, research projects, and technology maintenance.

Project IF is affiliated with the Paul G. Allen School, the Computer Science School of the University of Washington. They receive some annual funding to assist with project costs; additional funds come from the CSF. The group is looking to spread awareness of this program throughout their campus as it can benefit students studying various disciplines. 

“A future goal is to create something for workshops that can demonstrate multiple types of hydroponics,” adds Maxwell. The project leads are looking at other grant options related to engineering through the CSF, and they have some pending projects for expansion in the works.

“One of my biggest goals is to get more people into the farm. To attract people from other majors, I think it’s something that can be interesting to anybody.” Says Anna.

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