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Sustainability focus at UW-Eau Claire: Hydroponic gardens

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: The initial seed planting Oct. 24 was a combination of microgreens and mint. After soaking in the water basin layer for germination, the plants will be moved to the upper shelving layers as individual plants for the growing phase. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about efforts by UW-Eau Claire’s Administrative Office of Sustainability to support sustainability and the value of stewardship on campus and in the community.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has always been about “planting” the proverbial seeds of knowledge and wisdom, the cornerstone of education at a liberal arts college. This week, however, the attention has been on the literal planting of seeds, seeds that will take campus one step further in reaching sustainability goals.

On Monday, Oct. 24, UW-Eau Claire unveiled a new hydroponic garden system aimed at raising the bar on sustainable food sourcing while visibly increasing student access to fresh produce on campus.

The space known as The HUB on the ground level of Davies Center is now home to two hydroponic “micro farms,” enclosed vertical growing towers, seven feet high, purchased from a Pennsylvania company called Babylon Micro-Farms. The farms will produce herbs, lettuces, microgreens and leafy greens, with the first expected to be harvested in two weeks for microgreens and closer to six weeks for the larger plants.


Lily Strehlow, campus sustainability specialist in the Risk Management, Safety and Sustainability department

“There were many options to go with, and we chose Babylon for the in-house monitoring and support that comes with their units,” says Lily Strehlow, campus sustainability specialist in the Risk Management, Safety and Sustainability department.

“These towers have cameras on each tier connected to a mobile application, allowing Babylon to observe the plants as they grow and advise us as needed on care and maintenance. That frees up our time to work on other sustainability projects,” Strehlow says.  

A student-driven project

While many initiatives in sustainability have been pondered and considered by partners across campus, the hydroponics project grew from direct requests from Blugold students to leaders in food service and sustainability, and has been funded by a partnership between Sodexo and the division of Finance and Administration, Strehlow says.

“Last year, in 2021, students organized and reached out to leadership in Vice Chancellor Crickette’s office and to our partners in Sodexo and expressed concerns over the lack of fresh produce available to students after Hilltop and Davies closes, and in the Campus Harvest food pantry,” Strehlow says. “They said they wanted to be able to make healthier choices and eat more locally sourced foods. As produce from the units becomes available, it will be offered to both Sodexo and the Campus Harvest food pantry.”

"This project is a great example of the work we are doing to support our commitment to achieving national distinction in health and well-being and supporting sustainable campuses. Providing healthy food in a local, sustainable way is a win-win for our students, the university and our community,” says Grace Crickette, vice chancellor for finance and administration. 

Jake Hicks is a junior software engineering major from St. Louis, Missouri, who has been a student senator since spring 2022. He joined the Student Office of Sustainability (SOS) and has been closely involved with the hydroponics project from the onset.

“In addition to my personal passions about sustainability, as an on-campus student last year with no car, I agreed with other students that the lack of fresh produce needed a solution, and this project will offer students some more healthy alternatives,” Hicks says.

“We are running a pilot for this growing system to provide service-learning hours fulfillment for students.”

“Because these towers do a lot of the work growing the plants without much human intervention, the service hours will come in the form of harvesting and outreach, working with Campus Harvest and Marketplace to clean and prepare the produce, and they will provide outreach communication to get the word out and get produce into the hands of students,” Hicks says.

Strehlow points out a specific student demographic that project leadership hopes to target with making these new food resources known.

“The Randall Park neighborhood and the housing surrounding Bollinger Fields, two neighborhoods where many UWEC students live, were classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as food deserts based on 2019 data,” Strehlow says. “The produce we will provide through the food pantry is one step toward more equitable food access for the students living in those neighborhoods.”

Sarah Snyder, coordinator of the Campus Harvest food pantry, says the number of users is up this year, and she is looking forward to the additional food the hydroponic farms can offer to supplement the inventory they receive through donations.

“Currently we are only able to offer a limited number of vouchers for Kwik Trip produce, requiring an extra stop for students to get food, and a limited number of options once they get there,” Snyder says. “The price of everything is going up, and our students are struggling even more with finances than usual during their time as students. Having fresh food grown right here on campus to offer them is such an amazing opportunity.”

Fast facts

According to documentation from Babylon Micro-Farms, the following data points can help demonstrate the cost, time, energy and resource savings to be realized through these urban growing systems:

  • One unit can produce as much produce as 2,000 square feet of outdoor farmland.
  • Users can harvest/transplant/clean in about 30 minutes per week.
  • Each unit can save 7.13 pounds of fertilizer, 97.5 pounds of food waste and 13,128 gallons of water each year.
  • Each unit can house up to 45 plant varieties of herbs, lettuces, microgreens and leafy greens.
  • The units use zero pesticides.
  • Each full harvest can be expected to yield 6 pounds of produce.

Next steps

Henry Scamehorn is a 2022 Blugold geology graduate now working as a graduate assistant in the Risk Management, Safety and Sustainability department. As part of his assistantship through UW-La Crosse, Scamehorn has helped coordinate the hydroponics project, an effort he says is fulfilling to him on a personal level.

“Being able to work on this project, to research the planting units, to help oversee planting and eventually growing plants has been great,” Scamehorn says. “As a student here, I did want to see more positive change happening around sustainability. Along with BluBox, we now have this second very visible initiative right here in Davies where all students and visitors will be able to check it out. This is a high-profile sustainability initiative with real student impact right here that everyone will be able to witness.”