State College

Water-shortage solutions sprout from senior class project

About a week ago, lettuce grown in a vertical garden at State College Area High School North Building was about 2 inches high.

Seniors Salman Alhabib and Izaiah Bokunewicz used LED light made from desk lamps donated by the school to light and heat the produce.

Within seven days after adding lights Bokunewicz called “sun blasters,” purchased from the Organic Garden Center in Lemont, the lettuce was leafy and sprouted above a covering that held the produce in place.

The duo said Tuesday morning the lettuce should be fully grown in a couple of weeks, and eventually used for school lunch recipes from the district’s food service department.

The vertical garden project came as a way to complete their senior class project required for graduation, with help from teacher Andrew Wilson, and a piece of a larger grant the district received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program.

On Tuesday morning, the students showcased the project to the staff and student body in honor or World Water Day.

It came in partnership with the State High Environmental Club, teacher Jack Lyke’s aquaponics lab, teacher Paul Heasley’s aeroponics system, and the United Nations Water Council, Bokunewicz said.

“There were so many people involved to make this a reality,” he said.

Vertical garden process

The State College Area School District received a $26,355 Seed Change grant earlier in the school year to enhance ag-based projects.

Wilson was given $1,000 so that he, Alhabib and Bokunewicz could build a vertical garden.

“There was something here last year, but no one took care of it,” Bokunewicz said. “There were just some flowers, but they dried up. Mr. Wilson approached us to see if we’d be interested in doing this as a senior project, and I was really inspired.”

The initial goal, Bokunewicz said, was to establish an automated water system — something the garden didn’t have.

Bokunewicz said he and Alhabib helped set up the garden in October against a wall of the high school North Building adjacent to the main office.

It was made as an example for what other schools — and agriculturally challenged areas — could also create.

“When you don’t have space to grow wide, you just build up,” Bokunewicz said. “It’s really popular in urban areas like New York (City) and New Jersey.”

In December, three rows of six pockets for the vertical garden were erected in the hallway.

One side included lettuce and spinach seeds planted in soil. The other side included lettuce and spinach seeds planted in a Styrofoam water-soaked base.

The plants receive light and heat from the LED lights that produce 2,700 degrees Kelvin, and the sun blaster lights that produce 6,400 degrees Kelvin — 1,400 degrees Kelvin more than the sun.

“There is an absolutely huge difference in both brightness and actual difference in rate of growth when we used (the sun blaster lights),” Bokunewicz said. “It’s beneficial because we can get our produce faster and have it grow similar to the speed it might grow on a typical farm.”

But it comes with a trial-and-error approach.

“There is a lot of experiment to it,” Bokunewicz said. “It’s on-the-fly adaptation to see what works and what doesn’t, and adjust when necessary.”

So far, the team hasn’t seen a difference in growth from produce in the soil compared with produce growing in Styrofoam.

“The only variables we have to deal with are mold and insects that are often found in the soil, but we’re having a lot of success with both variations,” Alhabib said.

Saving water

The plants are hydrated through water from a tank that pumps six times a day for about a minute and a half.

“This is where we’re saving water,” Bokunewicz said. “Growing indoors uses significantly less water.”

Bokunewicz said he learned about water conservation after studying about AeroFarms, a farm in Newark, N.J., that works on an aeroponics system that mists produce.

“It used up to 95 percent less water,” Bokunewicz said. “That was a huge inspiration behind this project for me.”

The other inspiration for Bokunewicz came last year when he shadowed his uncle Bryan Beck, of Long Acres Potato Farm, in Tionesta.

“I really learned about vertical farming last summer,” Bokunewicz said. “He (Beck) asked me if I ever seen potatoes grow without using soil, and I was hooked.”

Future farming

Alhabib is not pursuing ag-based studies this fall in college, while Bokunewicz plans to study plant science. Both said they see themselves working in agriculture during their off time.

Bokunewicz said he wants to continue experimenting with vertical farming.

Alhabib, who’s originally from Saudi Arabia, said this kind of agriculture is perfect for the Middle Eastern desert, which isn’t conducive for typical farming.

“It’s something I could see myself introducing out there sometime,” he said. “It’s like charity; it’s giving back or showing a new and easier way to do things in some communities and camps they’re probably not (accustomed) to.”

For Wilson, he said he hopes to recruit more students into helping manage the vertical garden.

“There’s motivation to get kids growing their own food, seeing where it comes from and doing it in an unorthodox way,” Wilson said. “It’s the kind of project that encompasses so many parts of school curriculum, and (I) hope to expand on that.”

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo