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Seeds Sprout Experiential Learning Opportunities for Students at Freight Farm

Trimmed bib in outside planter

Stony Brook University is the first higher education institution in the United States to launch a Freight Farm on a college campus. The technology offers a hands-on learning environment that prompts students to be more sustainable in their own lives.  

At the end of the spring semester, this student-run farm, with support from the Faculty Student Association (FSA) and CulinArt, was able to produce about 800 heads of bibb and chicory lettuces, which were served to customers at the salad bar at East Side Dining’s Emporium.

Hands-on Learning for a Sustainable Future

“It has been an amazing experience for me,” said Sustainabilities Studies major Stephanie Suh and Freight Farm worker. “I consider this more of a fun after-school activity than a job.”

Growing local produce on campus has the potential to shorten the food supply chain, cut transportation emissions, decrease transportation costs, and overall, significantly reduce the campus carbon footprint. It also gives customers a fresh product that is harvested one day and served the next day.

The year-round Freight Farm is housed in a discarded shipping container that was transformed into a completely functional hydroponic farm called the Leafy Green Machine. Hydroponic farming does not use soil but rather utilizes many modern farm-management technologies such as a live camera feed, a smartphone app, and cloud-synced growth information. The insulated shipping container farms are outfitted with hydroponic systems, LED growing lights, heating and cooling systems, and a mobile software system for operating it all.

When speaking about the future of the Freight Farm, Suh added, “We used half of the towers here last semester. Our goal this year is to use both towers to provide lettuce for more dining locations and we’re thinking of growing other herbs such as cilantro, and maybe even edible flowers like rosemary.”

Sow, Grow, and Harvest New Lettuce Outside the Freight Farm

Bib lettuce in an outside container.
Bib lettuce from the Freight Farm planted in an outside container.

Anthony Gentile, FSA Manager for Machine Operated Services, has been working on sustainability projects for several years now to educate the campus community on waste reduction, composting, and farming.  According to Gentile, “Educating students about the importance of lowering our carbon footprint is part of the Freight Farm project. Students learn how to properly plant, nourish, transplant, and harvest leafy greens while creating a healthier more sustainable environment for all.”

Gentile is working on two experiments. For the first one, he took seedlings started inside the Freight Farm and planted them outside instead of within the shipping container’s towers. In his second experiment, he took a harvested full head of lettuce, removed all of the outer leaves, which were used in the East Side Dining Emporium salads, and then took the remaining inner-most leaves with their root structure and planted them outside. Both experiments were successful! Through his research, the team learned that they can germinate seeds in the Freight Farm for a soon-to-come raised planting bed project outside various dining halls. Customers will be able to buy a full head of Freight Farm lettuce, with the root, use most of the lettuce to eat and then plant the remaining head in the ground and grow another head of lettuce!  

The Best Salad Greens for Your Health

Chicory lettuce is sometimes referred to as “sturdy” lettuce because it makes a great base for salads with heavier ingredients such as nuts, fruits, seeds, or avocado. Chicory lettuce has a mildly bitter taste for a refreshing change from spinach or spring mix. This lettuce is a good source of thiamin, niacin, and zinc.

Bibb lettuce, also known as butter or Boston lettuce, is considered a leaf lettuce and ranks high on the flavor scale. It is rich in potassium, and vitamins A and K.

For more great salads, try Campus Dietitian Amanda Reichardt’s recipes for chicory or bibb lettuce salads.

Chicory Lettuce, Orange, Strawberry, and Pistachio Salad
Yields 14, 2 cup servings
Ingredients:
3 quarts chicory lettuce
3 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
¾ cup red onion, chopped
1 ½ quart baby spinach
3 carrots, shredded
3 oranges, sliced
3 cup strawberries, sliced
¾ cup pistachios
6 ounces goat cheese
Directions:
Combine all ingredients, except the cheese. Toss with your favorite dressing and top with cheese.

Asian Turkey Lettuce Cups
Yields 15, 2 lettuce cup servings
Ingredients:
1 ½ tbsp Asian seasoning
1 tbsp sesame oil
¼ cup carrots, shredded
2 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
½ cup scallions, chopped
½ cup cold water
1 ½ cup red bell pepper, diced
¼ cup Thai chili sauce
3 heads Bibb lettuce
2 ½ cups water chestnuts, sliced
1 cup hoisin sauce
1 ½ cup brown rice
2 lbs ground turkey
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
3 tsp olive oil
Directions:
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and crumble the turkey into the pan. Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until fully cooked. Add the ginger, Asian seasoning, bell peppers, and water chestnuts.
Cook turkey mixture for 2 minutes and fold in the rice, scallions, carrots, cilantro, sesame oil, chili sauce, and hoisin sauce.
Separate Bibb lettuce leaves (2 per portion) from heads and soak in ice cold water for 5 minutes until crisp.
Drain and fill each lettuce cup with turkey and rice mixture.

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