Stony Brook’s Freight Farm reopened on Feb. 20 in preparation of a new crop of foods, including strawberries and cilantro.
The hydroponic shipping container, located outside Roth Quad, allows student farmers to grow plants without soil. Students working at the farm have planted Bibb lettuce for the past two years, but this year they wanted to give themselves a challenge: to grow strawberries for the Strawberry Festival this spring. They decided to also grow cilantro because it can be used in a variety of cuisines on campus.
“Growing strawberry is more complicated,” Fauzia Aminah Rasheed, a senior environmental humanities major and student farmer, said. “Since strawberries have vines when they grow it, it might prove to be more complicated than the growing of lettuce.
The Freight Farm uses LED light, a closed-loop hydroponic system and a multi-planed airflow and an intercrop aeration system to grow crops. These technologies allow student farmers to plant food no matter the weather.
From the outside, the Freight Farm looks like a shipping container. It is 40’ x 8’ x 9.5’ and has produced 3,000 to 5,000 heads of lettuce per semester.
Using conventional agriculture, it costs $1.22 to grow a single head of lettuce, but the Freight Farm produces that same crop for only 12 cents, according to Chad Marvin, a senior environmental humanities major and student manager of the Freight Farm. The growth rate on a hydroponic plant is also faster than a soil plant.
“For conventional crops, you have to ship these across the country usually and freeze them, so it is not totally sustainable,” Marvin said. “Since the food we grow is local, we can quickly deliver our harvests to the campus body and give right back to the students.”
The hydroponic system uses significantly less water than conventional farming, and it allows student farmers to recycle the water they gave to the plants, Rasheed said.
Stony Brook’s Freight Farm first opened in 2015, and the vegetables were primarily sent to Roth Cafe and the Student Activities Center. The lettuce can be found in items like salads and hamburgers.
“I do feel this is a direction where we are going in the future, and this is definitely a direction we’re headed,” Rasheed said.
There are four students currently working on the Freight Farm — two student managers and two student farmers.
“When I eat the food that I grow, I feel a great sense of responsibility and security because I grow it and know where it comes from. I can eat it with a piece of mind knowing that it is from my own hands,” Joe Hrbek, a sophomore environmental humanities major and hydroponic grower in the Freight Farm, said. “I know that there hasn’t been any interference in the growing process, and I feel more connected to the earth.”
The hydroponic growing methods raised some concerns from students who expressed mistrust in the new technology used to grow the food they eat. Some worried that hydroponic food may not be as healthy as conventionally grown food.
“The hydroponic farming is kind of like an artificial thing to me,” Chloe Chen, a junior psychology major and an organic food supporter, said. “For me, this doesn’t sound safe.”
Student farmers said that the technology they use can control the conditions to create the safest growing environment possible. They also said that they expect to get more Freight Farms on campus, to provide food for each dining hall and produce a larger volume of food for the school.