Planting the Seed
Natick tests hydroponic farming
Don Holman was raised on a farm in Michigan and served 30 years in the Navy, which makes him a perfect fit to help test whether American warships could one day grow their own fresh vegetables.
"I want to see what can grow and what can't grow," said Holman, an engineering technician with the Joint Foodservice and Engineering Team at CFD and a retired command master chief. "We want to experiment with all varieties of vegetables and see how much produce we can produce. The end goal is to provide the Navy a technical report detailing the test results of the equipment, its possibilities and limitations."
Currently, ships on long deployments receive fresh fruit and vegetables by helicopter or by tensioned cable between ships with a pulley system.
"Much of it comes from locally-procured overseas sources," Holman said.
The hydroponic farm is growing produce from seeds without using soil. Seeds germinate and grow first in peat moss plugs placed in trays and then are transferred into vertical "towers." Through each step, the seedlings and, later, plants are moistened with nutrient-enriched water that is pH balanced.
"You can grow more plants in a vertical arrangement, rather than a horizontal configuration," Holman said. "It takes up very little floor space when it's hung vertically. There is more growth in less area."
The space is illuminated with light-emitting diode lights, and the 24-hour operation simulates daytime and nighttime conditions and accelerates plant growth. The container has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability and is equipped with an infrared camera.
"All functions are instrumented and automatically controlled, which simplifies data collection," Holman said. "The Wi-Fi allows one to monitor the farm from an iPhone at home, to ensure the farm's operating correctly."