In 2003 Windeon McDowell started as a student at OU. He first entered as a mechanical engineering major and eventually switched to professional writing. He never expected that he would end up being a farmer, that operates out of a shipping container.
Beginning his sophomore year McDowell started doing work study in food services. He has worked in most of the restaurants on campus as well as for OU catering and many of the same skills transferred between restaurants. Things got a little out of the ordinary when Dave Annis, the director of housing and food services, approached him about a project he described as “outside of the normal housing and food services” but something that would have a great impact on the university.
In comes the Leafy Green Machine™ by Freight Farms. It’s essentially a shipping container that is outfitted with all of the technology and infrastructure needed to do high yield, and consistent harvesting of crops. The main draw of the operation is that it takes up very little space and is climate controlled. This means no matter the location or weather conditions, you can always grow. In OU’s case, it grows the lettuce you see in our food.
When it first started, about 90% of the lettuce produced would go to the food on campus. Every week they would harvest and put out lettuce, but recently they have scaled back a lot. One of the main places the lettuce was used was in Cate Center, which is being repurposed and is no longer open to the public. Their product is being used in other locations, like Couch Cafeteria, but they have had to reevaluate their operation. “We do see some waste, only because you can't stop plants from growing”, said McDowell. “Once we knew about the changes we decided to pare down.” In addition to scaling back, they realize that students also want other greens like fresh herbs and kale. Now they have their sights set on the student living facility, Cross’ Acre Market.
One of the biggest shifts McDowell has noticed when it comes to student and their food is more transparency. “With all of the things that are happening, global warming, increased food recalls, more students want to know that their food is safe, what’s happening, where it’s coming from” said McDowell. He also notices many students are interested in the social responsibility aspects of food production. “When people are picking items like tomatoes for very little, students don't feel these practices are fair, and want to know, are we contributing to them.”
One student championed initiative was the Real Food Challenge. President Boren brought this into effect in Spring of 2015, joining a nationwide program aimed at sustainable food sourcing.
The idea was to get one quarter of the food on campus, to be locally sourced, in other words, anything in a 150-mile radius. McDowell believes that currently we are at about 18-20%, which includes using Oklahoma beef, eggs, and greens from the Freight Farm. If we expand to 250 miles, McDowell believes we are much closer to meeting 25%.
Tradition farming is facing several problems, one of which is the conversion of our natural lands to agriculture. “We are trying to sustain the agriculture practices to help people eat the same way they do now. With Freight Farms you are able to get large amounts of growth without harming our natural spaces” said McDowell. Though the Freight Farm is a huge producer, there is no way one Farm can cover the amount of lettuce we use on campus.
When you step inside the Freight Farm, it is filled with dozens of rows of hanging, purple, LED lights. This is actually a combination of red and blue lights. The plants need high and low frequency light to grow and these two colors satisfy that. There are 128 hanging LED lights and 256 towers in the Farm, this equates to 2 or 3 towers per light source. There are about 100 gallons of water stored in the tanks at the bottom, but they really only use about 5 or 6 gallons of water for the entire Farm. The stored water gets pushed up to the top, drips down through the towers, and recycles back down to the bottom where the process continues.
The growing cycle happens in stages. First is the seeding, from there it takes about a week or two to germinate, when the leaves begin to sprout. Then they transfer the plants over to the sealing trough where they grow for another week. Once plants are developed and the roots are firm enough to support the plant, they are transferred over to the towers. There they grow for at least four more weeks. From first seeding to end, the process takes anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks. The way the Farm is designed, if they stagger the growing, they can harvest every week. At full production they pull out about 1,000 head a week, but McDowell says they haven't been at full production in a while. The Farm uses 160 kilowatt hours of power and they are able to get an acre or acre and a half worth of growth in one cycle. All of this may be cool but since we are in the smartphone age it wouldn’t truly be complete without the app McDowell has that can track plant nutrients, adjust the temperature, and power on or off the entire Farm.