Even as lettuce is getting much more expensive and is sometimes unavailable because of drought and climate change, it is heartening to read about the many examples of people who are growing their own through hydroponics.
The most recent story I read was about a Freight Farm farm in a shipping container that is providing fresh produce to more than 8,400 students in Morgan Hill Unified School District near San Jose, California. But there are many other examples – from one that grows fresh food in the Arctic to one that grows it in subway stations in Japan and Taiwan and a fast food sandwich shop in Japan and South Korea.
Five years ago, Michael Jochner left behind his career as a chef to take on a new challenge – School Nutrition Director for the district. “I’m going to find the most high-tech way to grow the most salad bar items, and then introduce regenerative farming practices to show students that farming can be cool,” he says.
The historic farming community of Morgan Hill, located in Santa Clara County at the southern tip of Silicon Valley, is the perfect place for a hydroponic farm, with an active FFA chapter, a background in farming, and proximity to an epicenter of technological advancement, says a Freight Farm case study.
Freight Farm photo.
The district recently launched a pilot program, FarmTECH, to introduce students to regenerative agriculture (while also showing that the department could grow salad bar items below cost). In honor of Farm to School Month, students from El Toro Elementary School learned about the growth cycle of lettuce and then harvested the lettuce for lunch. Jochner wants to partner with the FFA program going forward to offer farming classes in the Freight Farm for high school students.
It was a big career change for him. He had worked at some high-end French restaurants and a high-end French bistro, a private country club and then with Bon Appetit Management at Google’s corporate dining program in its Mountain View headquarters. That’s where he encountered Freight Farm.
Freight Farm photo
Jochner brought back fully fresh salad bars at all eight elementary schools and chef salads at all the high schools. He expects that the $150,000 unit, installed last October, will pay back on an eight-year ROI primarily through procurement savings, especially if the price of lettuce escalates.
The elementary schools and two district middle schools get two lunch entrée choices a day, one usually meat and the other vegetarian or vegan. The high schools usually offer five different entrees, with at least one being vegetarian or plant based. The district meal program runs on a one-month cycle.
At the Freight Farm, which is located 30 feet from the kitchen at Ann Sobrato High School, the lettuce is harvested with roots intact, boxed up and delivered to individual school kitchens, where kitchen shears are used to cut the lettuce from the head as needed for the day.
The Nutrition Department hired Maxim Banuelos as their first lead farmer. As well as taking care of growing the produce, he will teach a handful of students in the farm starting in the spring of 2023. He has his CTE credential.
Farmer Maxim Banuelos
All in all, the Freight Farm produces lettuce at a cheaper cost (including labor) than if the district bought it.
The district recently bought a second unit, which is scheduled to arrive at the district’s Live Oak High School in November. Like the one at Ann Sobrato, it will grow only lettuce—Green Butter, Rouxai (red oak), Sweet Crisp and Skyphos (red Boston butterhead) for the spring mix blend and a mini red romaine for the high schools.
Jochner says he is focused on lettuce because he considers it “the heart of the salad bar.” But work is underway on producing other components, at a 40-foot unused greenhouse at one of the high school sites. The ag department is letting him use it for one year to grow cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. “We’ll use a Dutch bucket system that is another hydroponic technique and we’re hoping to produce about 20% of our district’s cherry tomato and cucumber needs for salad bars with it.”
During 2022, there were more than 55 Growcer farms growing more than four million servings of local, nutrition greens across Canada. See their highlight reel.
Morgan Hill USD brings the farm to school. Food Management, Nov. 3, 2022.
Freight Farms website.