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Student Life

Strawberries and Fresh Greens in April? Thank the UMass Student Hydrofarmers

Spring in the Connecticut River Valley can bring daffodils, t-shirts and the first mild days…or it can bring sleet, mud and gloomy skies. But, thanks to the student farmers at UMass Amherst’s Hydrofarm, students still eat like it is summer even when it snows like winter.

Hydroponic farming is a sustainable way to grow plants without soil, using, instead, nutrient-rich water, greenhouse temperatures and grow lights. Though they may look more like plumbing-supply warehouses than a traditional farm field, a hydroponic farm has a number of advantages: they’re space efficient, and very large crops can be grown on a comparatively small area. Because you don’t need open agricultural space, hydroponic farms can be situated in cities, suburbs—anywhere people live. Crops can also be grown all year long. And because the climate, light and nutrients are all managed for optimal growth, hydroponic-grown veggies can be harvested sooner than their conventionally grown counterparts.

The UMass Hydrofarm started in 2017 and currently is a student-run practicum, with 16 student-farmers, supported by the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. They grow tomatoes, peppers and lots of veggies—in fact, they have supplied Franklin Commons with an average of 30 pounds of greens per week totaling 430 pounds for the academic year.

“I come here at least once a day to check on the plants,” says Harlee Priestly, a sophomore horticultural science major on the business track. “It’s beautiful in the greenhouse and really relaxing.”

Though the Hydrofarm shut down during the fall of 2020 due to the pandemic, it has come roaring back, in no small part due to the work of co-managers Josiah Gummeson, a senior in natural resource conservation, and Stephen Vaiano, a 2021 graduate of the horticultural science program and currently a plant and soil sciences master’s student. “We’re going stronger than ever,” says Gummeson, “even despite the pandemic.” Taylor Sharfman, a junior in sustainable food and farming, will be coming on as manager next year.

One sign of this strength is a new arrival to the Hydrofarm—strawberries. Nourse Farms in Hadley recently donated 25 plants to the Hydrofarm, which are growing in vertical aeroponic towers that the hydrofarmers have built. Aeroponics is a variation of hydroponics that involves misting a plant’s roots with a nutrient solution. These are the first aeroponics systems implemented into the UMass Hydrofarm, and, because they are vertical, help to optimize space even more.

Amanda Emond, from Nourse Farms, says “we believe that being part of the community is essential. We gladly donate to organizations whose mission and values align with our own, and we strongly support the education of future farmers. The student hydrofarmers at UMass have been so gracious and we are delighted to see their success with the strawberry plants. We work closely with and regularly receive support from the folks at the UMass Extension, and are thrilled to be able to give back in a small way!”

So next time you sink your teeth into one of the meals at Franklin Commons, take a moment to thank UMass’s student hydrofarmers.