Trinity receives grant for shipping container farming venture

January 7, 2017
Image description
Photo courtesy of Freight Farms
An existing Freight Farms growing operation
Image description
Photo courtesy of Freight Farms
Produce grows in a Freight Farms container.

On the campus of Trinity Area High School, students soon will be growing vegetables in a repurposed shipping container.

The school district received a Local Share Account grant from slots revenue to purchase a Leafy Green Machine, a high-tech hydroponic farm built inside a shipping container, making it just the sixth public school system in the United States to undertake the project.

The school district will use the transformed shipping container to grow produce for the school campus and the community in a joint venture with the Greater Washington County Food Bank.

“From the moment Greater Washington County Food Bank learned about the innovative Freight Farms project at Trinity High School, we were hooked,” said Connie Burd, executive director of the food bank. “(Superintendent) Dr. Michael Lucas and (Assistant Superintendent) Don Snoke are pioneers of the 21st century.”

The container will enable students to grow greens vertically and hydroponically (without soil), according to Caroline Katsiroubas, community manager at Freight Farms, a Boston-based company that also supplies the technology.

Lucas said the school district will receive the shipping container this summer and will launch the farming project in the 2017-18 school year.

Students, under the guidance of agriculture and horticulture teachers Robin Durila and Julia Starr, will run the entire operation during horticulture classes and non-instructional periods.

The farm-in-a-box is designed to give students an opportunity to gain experience in the science and engineering of hydroponic agriculture, as well as teach them about the business and responsibility of running a farm.

Lucas is especially excited about the hands-on education the project will offer students and adults.

“Through the application of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), Trinity students will function in the role of engineers and utilize available resources to solve real-world problems,” said Lucas.

In a few decades, an estimated nine billion people will crowd the planet. Freight Farms helps meet the growing need for fresh, sustainable, locally-grown food year-round, Lucas said.

According to Freight Farms, the portable vegetable gardens use 90 percent less water than conventional soil-based farms.

One shipping container produces the equivalent of what is produced on an acre of land, and uses 10 gallons of water a day.

For example, said Lucas, one container can produce 1,200 to 1,500 heads of lettuce per week, 52 weeks per year – approximately 78,000 heads of fresh, pesticide-free lettuce per year.

Students can grow other greens, including kale, peppers and herbs.

Lucas said the vegetables will be donated to the Greater Washington County Food Bank as part of the Trinity Area School District/Washington County Food Bank Hydroponic Freight Farm Project. The food will be distributed to county residents who qualify for the program or are in need.

Lucas said students from Washington and Avella school districts will be invited to work alongside Trinity students, and starting in January 2018, community members will be able to participate in the evenings.

Additionally, a local restaurant recently contacted Trinity about purchasing vegetables and having students build a rooftop garden at the restaurant, Lucas said.

The district is exploring plans to supply vegetables to local restaurants and the school cafeteria.

The $85,000 LSA grant, which is distributed by the state Department of Community and Economic Development after being recommended by a local committee and the Washington County commissioners, covers the entire cost of the container and start-up costs.

“We are extremely excited to have received the LSA grant to provide the Trinity School District an opportunity to serve our school community, as well as our students, in job creation, economic development and responsible citizenship,” said Snoke.

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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