Students take a peek inside a freight farm

Apr 12, 2018

Even in the dead of winter and during hot humid summers, lettuce grows at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth inside a special “Freight Farm.”

The shipping container located behind the university’s main dining hall is packed with rows of growing lettuce, high-tech climate control systems, and a 137-gallon water pumping system.

It allows the university to produce 5,000 heads of lettuce a year inside the shipping container, or the equivalent output of a 1.2-acre farm. The produce is kept within the university campus and served to students.

“We’re on the cutting edge,” said university executive chef Kevin Gibbons. “Us and Worcester State are the only schools in Massachusetts that have one."

On April 12, Gibbons opened the freight farm for a special tour with about a dozen students from New Bedford’s Renaissance Community School. Students have been participating in a special “Food For Thought” program hosted by New Bedford-based non-profit Youth Opportunities Unlimited.

During the tour, Gibbons explained how the Freight Farm works. Using state-of-the-art climate control systems, the interior is maintained at a steady 65 degrees and 80 percent humidity. Lettuce is “planted” in special cases, and mounted horizontally in short, tall stacks.

The freight farm features no windows to let vital sunlight in. Instead, Gibbons pressed a few buttons on a touch screen and each row of lettuce lit up using multi-colored LED lights. The LED lights, which differ in color, allow the lettuce to complete photosynthesis and grow.

The trip was fascinating for the group of middle schoolers.

“I liked that they use just the lights to grow the lettuce,” said Keilyn Ayala Lopez. “I didn’t know they could use colored lights.”

It was the final event for Food for Thought participants. Each week for several months, New Bedford students have been getting hands-on cooking lessons from professional chefs at the Dartmouth Grange. It’s made possible by a partnership between Youth Opportunities Unlimited, the Grange, Chartwells, UMass Dartmouth, and the New Bedford school system.