UW student seeks to revolutionize crop growing

Mar 26, 2012

A doctoral student at the University of Wyoming has developed a new method for producing and selling vegetables. The student’s name is Nate Storey, and he’s designed a growing system in one of the university’s greenhouses that requires no fertilizer, produces virtually no waste and yields four times as much produce as traditional greenhouse setups. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: The greenhouse where Nate Storey has set up shop is filled with light. Water gurgles through an elaborate irrigation system. Towers of leafy vegetables and herbs hang from the ceiling, forming curtains of green.

NATE STOREY: We’re going chard over here. Cilantro. There’s a tower of parsley.

BELDEN: This is where Storey is testing his plan to revolutionize gardening. He’s getting some help from the university’s business incubator; they’ve given him greenhouse space and marketing advice. But the concept is his own. His design involves a series of long plastic tubes suspended from the ceiling, which hold the plants. Veggies and herbs poke their leaves out of vertical slits along the sides of the tubes. Below the plants are giant blue tubs of water, filled with silvery tilapia. Storey and his partner toss a bowl of fish food into one tank. Tilapia swarm to the surface, forming tiny waves as they gobble up their feast.

The fish are there to feed the plants. Dirty water from the tanks gets pumped up to the tubular gardens, and the fish manure serves as fertilizer.

STOREY: The plants, in turn, clean that water, so we can cycle it back to the fish pretty much forever.

BELDEN: The upshot is that the plants get the nutrients they need without extra fertilizer, and the fish send no waste into the sewer system.

STOREY: The benefit of the system as a whole is that I get two crops with basically a single input. I’m putting in fish feed, and I’m getting out a vegetable and an animal crop.

BELDEN: And the whole thing requires very little space.

STOREY: We’re finding that we can produce about four times as much per square foot by using vertical space as opposed to just horizontal space.

BELDEN: And that saves money, because the smaller the greenhouse, the less you pay for heat during the long Wyoming winters. So all in all, Storey says, it’s a pretty efficient system.

Storey says consumers stand to benefit too – because they get truly fresh vegetables. The plastic towers where the plants are grown leave the greenhouse and go straight to market once the herbs are mature. So you’ve got real, live, growing plants in the store. Shoppers can then snip off the amount they want.

The Big Hollow Food Co-op in Laramie is the first shop to sell Storey’s produce. This week, their display case is stocked with lettuce, kale and cilantro. Terri Lund, who’s shopping at the co-op, snips a small handful of herbs.

TERI LUND: It just smells so good. You get to handle it yourself…

BELDEN: Lund says she could find the same herbs at the supermarket for comparable prices …

LUND: But they’d be in such a quantity that I’d waste a lot of them. And I like the fact that they’re fresh. And here they are.

BELDEN: Marla Petersen, the general manager at the co-op, says Storey’s produce has been selling well. She’s happy to be able to stock herbs in the winter, something she couldn’t do in the past. And she likes that the vegetables don’t need refrigeration, and aren’t packaged in plastic. But she says there have been some challenges – in part because customers sometimes think the veggies on the wall are just for show.

MARLA PETERSON: Some people come in, they look at it, and they say, ‘Oh that’s beautiful.’ And then they turn around and pull something out of the bin when they could’ve had it fresh. And so we try to grab those people and say, ‘Here, let me show you how to do this.’

BELDEN: Still, Petersen considers the endeavor a big success. So far, Big Hollow is the only store selling Storey’s produce. Chain supermarkets in town haven’t been receptive. Still, Storey hopes to leave the university’s incubator this spring, open his own greenhouse, and try marketing his vegetables to locally owned businesses elsewhere in Wyoming and along the Colorado front range. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.