In the darkest days of winter, Julie Rappaport wants to grow some greenery.
Rappaport is the founder of Seeds Feeds, a small but growing nonprofit that fights hunger. The group distributes fresh, healthy food to families in need and cultivates the growing skills of its customers in 10 gardens in St. Louis Park.
But when the harvest passes and the season turns, Rappaport said, “The gardens are closing in Minnesota, and we can’t really do cool things. if we could get it all winter long. ‘”
Four engineering students from the University of St. Thomas have just completed two semesters of work on a project that aims to give Seeds Feeds – and possibly some of the individual families it serves – an inexpensive way to grow crops. leafy vegetables and herbs all year round.
“We were surprised at how quickly the plants grew,” said Noah Drehmel, an electrical engineering student who was part of the St. Thomas group. In recent months, he and his colleagues were rapidly growing leafy greens and herbs using the system they built in a lab on the St. Paul School campus.
“We found that they grew about twice as fast as it takes to grow these plants in the ground,” said Drehmel, 21, of Apple Valley.
Greens grown indoors and year round, including by several Minnesota companies, are a growing segment of the nation’s vegetable market. Although still eclipsed by the green vegetables grown outdoors in the Southwestern United States, indoor operations using hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics are on the rise amid supply chain disruptions. supply, food price spikes and concerns about the region’s long-term water supply.
Beyond the commercial potential of indoor vegetables, food safety groups in cold climates like Minnesota are seeing a way to keep green vegetables fresh among their offerings while avoiding the higher costs and complications associated with it. shipment of products across the country.
Seeds Feeds, which Rappaport said distributed around 20,000 pounds of food this year, had experimented with hydroponics on a small scale, but found commercial systems both expensive to buy and difficult to operate. The organization had previously been in contact with students in St. Thomas for whom community service projects are a degree requirement, so when Rappaport learned that engineering students were part of that group, it pitched.
What she wanted, Rappaport said, was a hydroponic system that could be assembled and operated by non-experts and cost less than $ 500. The group hopes to be able to scale up the system at its warehouse in St. Louis Park, and sell and donate small units for home use.
“You know the old adage: you don’t give a man fish, you teach him how 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 business systems at the start of the project. They have developed a grow unit that allows its users to measure temperature and humidity, pH levels and nutrients, and triggers an alert in the event of a water leak.
“It is designed so that people who are not mechanical engineers can use it,” said Dagmawe Mamo, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student. “We think the potential capabilities of this thing are huge. It’s exciting to think you’ve worked 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 filed their system with Seeds Feeds earlier this week, along with a user manual and troubleshooting guide. Rappaport said she enlisted the help of a greenhouse systems expert to set it up for regular use.
Although increasing the offerings of fresh produce for customers is the first task, Rappaport hopes the nonprofit can sell the machines commercially. The organization’s budget increased during the pandemic thanks to several large federal grants, she said, but this required moving the operation out of her home and into rental space.
“I hope this will help us both feed the people and maybe also pay the rent,” Rappaport said.