RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Dozens of red leaf lettuce heads grew without ever seeing the actual light of day with the help of Freight Farms "ag tech," a repurposed shipping container and students from La Sierra University. One of the students was Max Proebstle, who never thought he would find a personal interest in hydroponic farming.

"As soon as you transplant them into the growth panels after about a week, they're already like a full head of lettuce; it's pretty amazing to see," the graduate student said.

What You Need To Know

  • More than 20 La Sierra students are working together to study hydroponic farming inside a repurposed shipping container

  • The Freight to Table program used Freight Farms "ag tech" to grow leafy greens with the help of high-intensity lights, circulating water and plant nutrients

  • The system uses at least 90% less water than traditonal farming, according to La Sierra University project director Marvin Payne

  • The program will utilize harvested crops in the university dining halls and provide locally sourced produce for the surrounding area

Proebstle and about 20 other students have been volunteering their time inside the repurposed shipping container turned indoor hydroponic farm on campus. This method of growing crops replaces the need for soil with plant nutrients, artificial light and recirculating water. After working with the new tech system, Proebstle believes it could be a game-changer for the future of farming.

"If you have a connection to a water system and electricity, you can basically grow produce sustainably and organically, anywhere and anytime," he said.

The Enactus team on campus recently harvested more than 500 heads of red leaf lettuce, with more on the way. The program is helping students get a hands-on approach in STEM and agriculture while also introducing them to a way to create their urban farms in the future.

Project Director Marvin Payne, who oversees the Freight to Table program on campus, explained that this model allows hydroponic farms to be placed just about anywhere for year-round harvesting.

"The entire footprint of this container is basically 320 square feet, and so with this, you can turn out thousands of plants in a fairly short period of time," he said.

The tech allows growers to monitor nutrient levels, production and light schedules remotely. Since it's inside a container, the amount of artificial daylight for the crops can be increased to about 16 hours each day. Doing so means more growth but also a higher electricity output.

As drought conditions worsen, at least 94% of California is considered to be in a severe drought. There will be more pressure on the farming industry for water conservation, and this model — according to Payne — uses at least 90% less water.

"You are using electricity, but we're getting creative in producing electricity these days, and it uses only a very small fraction of the water that any traditional farming is going to use," he said.

After plucking the leafy greens from growth panels inside the controlled agriculture environment, Proebstle and the team have brought their harvest from a hydroponic farm to the table with a new passion for farming.

"In my personal life, I can totally see this being a part of my life, something that I'll be interested in and involved in for the rest of my life," Proebstle said.

Until then, the Enactus team at La Sierra University will continue exploring how this growing method could bring sustainability and locally sourced produce where it's needed most.