Harvesting local solutions to global challenges
Days before COVID-19 arrived in Omaha, a shopper could visit any grocery store without worrying about being able to find the items on their list. But in the beginning days of the global pandemic, items typically found in abundance were nowhere to be found, no matter the expected shelf life. Hoarding happened.
While still in the midst of supply chain issues that have disrupted many elements of daily life over the past two-plus years, the pandemic continues to remind us that we live in a highly interconnected and interdependent world. The arrival of a 320-square-foot indoor container garden at the Metropolitan Community College satellite location at Yates Illuminates community center represents lessons learned from the pandemic, community solutions for a warming planet and innovative methodology to achieve food self-sufficiency.
The LED-powered “Freight Farm” is a revolutionary vertical crop-growing system that can produce more than two acres of food over the course of a year in an indoor, climate-controlled setting. Positioned as it is in the courtyard, it is truly the “centerpiece” of the Yates Illuminates, a collaborative nonprofit with a focus on education.
It is the first Freight Farm in Omaha, the second in Nebraska and the only one in the state with formalized academic programs attached to it. The hands-on curriculum offered at the Freight Farm is designed with the highly diverse residents of the Gifford Park neighborhood near 32nd and Davenport streets in mind.
“When fully up and running, the MCC Freight Farm will be a solar-powered source of immersive learning with a focus on programs that promote diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Gary Girard, MCC associate vice president for community and workforce education.
The converted shipping container can grow more than 500 varieties of crops year-round in a nontraditional learning setting. According to the manufacturer, the hydroponic system can support more than 13,000 growing plants at one time using just five gallons of water per day. Over the course of a year, that can amount to an annual harvest of between two to six tons of produce — lettuces, leafy greens, herbs, root vegetables and more.
Yates Illuminates is a partnership committed to delivering adult education and employment services. Girard said the College’s on-site Freight Farm will create a wide variety of learning opportunities across many academic focus areas offered at MCC. It will also help launch a new certification for sustainability, as well as offer a full continuum of community programs that serve people from age 3 to the aging population. Programs will continue to develop with input from Gifford Park neighbors and beyond.
“Our Freight Farm will showcase alternative and local growing solutions that are self-sustaining and create food self-sufficiency, which can be an issue in urban settings,” Girard said.
Course content will have application for students studying business, culinary arts, health, horticulture, science, sustainability, technology and more.
“We’ll look at alternative ways of growing, the science behind it and food equity — all the ways we can use this location to serve underresourced folks in the community,” Girard said.
Girard added that determining how the Freight Farm will be implemented at MCC has relied on strong collaboration within the College’s culinary and horticulture programs, which are natural partners that function like academic consultants for developing curriculum.
“Our culinary and horticulture programs have been highly involved in MCC sustainability initiatives, so it was a natural progression for these programs to provide input,” said Brian O’Malley, associate dean of MCC culinary, hospitality and horticulture. “We are excited for the opportunity to have this innovative growing system as part of our programs and the potential it brings for community education and impact.”
Classes will be offered later this summer with courses on organic farming, sustainable agriculture, farming technology, consequences of food deserts, supply and demand and plant care already scheduled.
Girard said one of the key benefits of the addition to the College’s footprint at Yates Illuminates is how the Freight Farm builds on existing programs at MCC. For example, at MCC North Express, a satellite location in the Highlander Building on North 30th Street, visual lessons on climate change are projected on the large Science on a Sphere globe display that hangs from the ceiling. Those global learning experiences can then be linked to local applications and lessons at Yates Illuminates’ Freight Farm by learning how to grow food from alternative sources, using renewable energy, etc.
“The Freight Farm really can intersect with almost every academic focus area that we have on campus, from farm-to-table dining as part of our culinary program to the technology running the Freight Farm you would learn about in our IT programs. You can manage the entire farm from an app on your phone,” Girard said.
Like all aspects of Yates Illuminates, the Freight Farm will be community-driven and collaborative. Girard said MCC will look for opportunities to connect with other schools and engage students. For example, synergy can develop from MCC student workers connecting with others participating in youth programs at Yates Illuminates.
“Just like our food chain, we want everything that happens at Yates Illuminates to be interconnected. We hope to take student engagement to a whole new level and use the Freight Farm as a tool to bring people together,” Girard said.