In the darkest days of winter, Julie Rappaport has a desire to grow green.
Rappaport is the founder of Seeds Feeds, a small but expanding, hunger-fighting nonprofit organization. The group distributes fresh, healthy food to families in need and cultivates the growing skills of its customers in 10 gardens throughout St. Louis Park.
But when the harvest goes by and the season turns, Rappaport said, “the gardens are closing in Minnesota and we can not really make fresh things. Our people say, ‘if we could just get food for salad, it would be so nice if we could get this all winter. ‘”
Four engineering students from the University of St. Thomas has just completed two semesters of work on a project that aims to provide Seeds Feeds – and perhaps some of the individual families it serves – a low-cost way to grow leafy vegetables and herbs year-round.
“We were amazed at how fast the plants grew,” said Noah Drehmel, an electrical engineer who was part of St. The Thomas Group. In recent months, he and his colleagues have been rapidly growing leafy greens and herbs using the system they built in a laboratory on the school’s St. Paul Campus.
“We found that they grew about twice as fast as they say it takes to grow these plants in soil,” said Drehmel, 21, of Apple Valley.
Vegetables grown indoors and year-round, including by several Minnesota companies, are a growing segment of the country’s vegetable market. Although still overshadowed by greens grown outdoors in the southwestern United States, indoor operations using hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic technologies are on the rise in the middle of the supply chain, rising food prices and concerns over the region’s long-term water supply.
In addition to the commercial potential of indoor vegetables, food security groups in cold weather climates like Minnesota see a way to keep fresh vegetables among their offerings while avoiding the higher costs and complications associated with shipping goods across the country.
Seeds Feeds, which Rappaport said distributed about 20,000 pounds of food this year, had experimented in small ways with hydroponic cultivation, but found commercial systems both expensive to buy and picky to operate. The organization had previously been connected to St. Thomas student, for whom community service projects are an exam requirement, so when Rappaport found out that engineering students were part of that group, she made a pitch.
What she wanted, Rappaport said, was a hydroponic system that could be assembled and operated by non-experts and would cost less than $ 500. The group hopes to be able to install the system on a larger scale at their warehouse in St. Louis Park and to both sell and donate small units for home use.
“You know the old saying: you do not give a man a fish, you teach him to fish?” said Rappaport. “We teach people how to grow food in their habitat. So if you live in an apartment, how do you grow fresh food? We hope with this.”
The student team studied commercial systems as they embarked on the project. They came with a growing device that allows users to measure temperature and humidity, PH levels and nutrients, and triggers an alarm in case of water leaks.
“It’s designed so that people who are not mechanical engineers can use it,” said Dagmawe Mamo, a 21-year-old mechanical engineer. “We think the potential opportunities for this thing are huge. It’s exciting to think that you’ve been working on something that could be used in homes and factories.”
The other two engineering students in the group are Timara Williams and Caleb Willeford. They delivered their system with Seeds Feeds earlier in the week, complete with user guide and troubleshooting guide. Rappaport said she has enlisted the help of an expert in greenhouse systems to implement it for regular use.
Although it is a job to increase the supply of fresh raw materials to customers, Rappaport hopes that the non-profit organization may be able to sell the machines commercially. The organization’s budget has grown during the pandemic thanks to several large federal grants, she said, but it necessitated moving operations out of her home and into rental premises.
“Hopefully this helps us both to feed people and maybe also pay the rent,” Rappaport said.