Hydroponics System at Alfred State College: New Ideas Sprouting Up Everywhere

LettuceThere may be snow on the ground and a nip in the air, but the cropping season is well underway at Alfred State College.  Thanks to new greenhouse and lighting technologies, the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Technology, located in the central Southern Tier, is growing vegetables year-round.

Conventional greenhouse technologies are already widely used in Western New York; thus, Alfred State is focused on how greenhouse systems can be made more sustainable, using new growing technologies.

There are many methods of hydroponic production, including growing the plants in solid media such as peat moss, perlite, or even sand.  These media, which are lighter and less buffered than soil, allow growers to quickly and directly deliver nutrients to their crops. 

In the college's greenhouse, hydroponics is being used for dynamic root growth.  The plants are grown in polypropylene tubes which have thin streams of nutrients running through them -- a technique known as Nutrient Film Technology.  The results are remarkable: for example, full lettuce heads are ready for harvest one month after planting.

The hydroponic vegetable production is overseen by Dr. Matthew Harbur, ASC assistant professor, Agriculture and Horticulture Department.  This project is just one of many exciting initiatives underway at the college's new Center for Organic and Sustainable Agriculture (COSA).

Harbur and Alfred State students are currently growing lettuce in the greenhouse, which includes red and green Summer Crisp, Oak Leaf, red and green Romaine, and Lollo lettuce.  Other crops include herbs, edible flowers, other salad greens, and tomatoes.  Volume will further increase as additional greenhouse models are constructed later this year.  The greenhouse hydroponics system promotes a more sustainable food culture and local food production.  The varieties of lettuce being grown now are provided by Johnny's Select Seeds from Maine.

The development of an LED (light-emitting diode) light system for the greenhouse sparked Harbur's interest in a hydroponics system.  The lights use far less energy than pressure sodium lights and there are no hazardous issues of florescent lights.  The LED lights are used to supplement the winter sunshine, which alone is too weak to support rapid vegetable growth.  The first lettuce crop from the greenhouse was sold to ACES (Auxiliary Campus Enterprises and Services-the campus dining and vending operation) to be used in the Central Dining Hall to feed ASC students.  Soon ASC students will harvest 30 heads a day, which is roughly 20-30 pounds of lettuce per week. 

"Many people think growing with hydroponics isn't as sustainable as growing plants in soil, but it reduces the greenhouse space that must be heated and lit, and increases the competitiveness of local vegetables with imported foods," says Harbur, who also serves as director of COSA.  He added, "There are a lot of advantages with hydroponics: less footage required per pound of food produced and, in our system, the ability to grow additional plants below our hydroponic system."