Tucked away inside a small, rural school 200 miles away from Bozeman sits an experimental room where Montana State University students have been dedicated to fine-tuning the future of agriculture.
Grow towers with red and purple lights brim with bushels of lettuce, their spider-like roots suspended into water bins. Buckets filled with clay pellets boast tomato and pepper plants, spiked with lively green leaves and budding fruit.
Outside, snow and harsh wind whip at the hydroponic system, but the mid-winter harvest will still be bountiful.
Altogether, the indoor growing system costs thousands of dollars to run, but has the capacity to produce food for the 200 people who call the town of Winifred home. But the facility isn’t just there to grow food — it’s also serving as an educational space for MSU and K-12 students at the Winifred School.
Last semester, the MSU horticulture capstone class built this hydroponic system from scratch to bolster local food security and teach other students about indoor food systems.
Norm Asbjornson, an MSU philanthropist from Winifred, donated the hydroponic growing space to the town.
David Baumbauer, director for the MSU Plant Growth Center, and Brandon Tillett, a doctorate student in the department of plant science and plant pathology, co-taught the capstone class for the four seniors in the horticulture program.
“In order to grow indoors, you have to understand a lot more about the life cycle of a plant,” Tillett said.
“Outside, nature does it for you. You can accidentally have a good harvest. That’s not going to happen with an indoor agriculture system.”
Hydroponic systems require much less water, space and soil compared to traditional agriculture, and allow for quickly growing vegetables any month of the year — a huge advantage in a place with a short outdoor growing season like Montana. They’re different from greenhouses because they use artificial grow lights rather than the sun.
“Hydroponics has the ability to produce a lot of plants in a fairly high density area,” Baumbauer said. “You have this little indoor ag farm where you can do 200 plants a week, and it’s the size of a single car garage.”
While Montana’s staple crops of wheat and hay can’t be grown with hydroponics, the technique can help urban areas buy more fruit and vegetables locally, cutting costs and emissions associated with food transportation.
But despite the benefits, a major drawback is how energy-intensive the system is. Tillett estimated the power bill for the grow lights alone hovers around $400 a month.
“It’s one of the highest energy-cost ways to produce food,” Baumbauer said. “But if you can address that with renewables, then that kind of answers that question.”
Hydroponics itself has a high upfront cost. Setting up the system cost upward of $30,000, Tillett said. It also requires near daily maintenance to make sure the water is recirculating through the system correctly and that pumps and filters are working.
After setting up the system, the MSU students made two other multiple-day trips to Winifred to check progress and troubleshoot any problems.
Julie Ewen, the science teacher for Winifred School, did the daily maintenance for the system and alerted MSU of any issues.
To maximize their limited time in Winifred, the students also set up a similar hydroponic system in the MSU Plant Growth Center to experiment with solutions.
Sam McMaster, one of the four students in the class, said the experience from his horticulture classes at MSU culminated into him being able to do this work.
For example, Winifred has poor water quality — it’s high in salt and alkaline content — and figuring out how to fix that for the grow facility was a big challenge. The students ultimately built a reverse osmosis filter to fix the problem.
That’s a solution they wouldn’t have landed on without already understanding how water chemistry affects plants and how to alter it, McMaster said.
The students also had to troubleshoot problems involving water pressure, humidity causing mold, and rampant algal growth.
But at the end of day, the work boiled down to the one thing for the students: It was fun.
“This was the best class I’ve ever taken at MSU,” McMaster said. “The hands-on experience was invaluable. … It never felt like work to me. I was always excited to go.”
The Winifred facility also challenged students to be resilient in new ways. There was no local hardware store, so if they needed something fixed, they had to be resourceful.
Tillett remembered one day when the students needed a part to fix the water system, but didn’t have the right materials. So, they asked around town and people pointed them to someone’s garage — brimming with trash and broken machines — to get what they needed.
McMaster remembered thinking there was no way this Winifred local could build the part they needed. But he did. It worked perfectly.
“I’m sure they all felt just tickled pink with themselves — having to show a bunch of college kids to build something out of garbage,” Tillett said.
Now that the class is over, it’s up to the Winifred School to decide what they want from the facility. It’s grown lettuce for the local grocery school and a salad for every student and teacher lunch, but teachers see its potential as an educational tool as well.
Ewen, the science teacher, said she’s already been taking her science classes once a week to observe the plants and help with harvesting.
During the spring semester, Ewen hopes her high schoolers can do some more technical experiments with the plants, like changing water, light, and nutrient amounts and seeing how that impacts plant growth.
The kids are also eager to plant some herbs, melons and strawberries to see what can grow well in the facility. They’re a bit more excited about growing tasty fruit compared to vegetables, she said.
The school hasn’t been at it long enough to know if the facility is worth it, Ewen said. But to her, it seems like little upkeep to produce a consistent stream of food.
“The whole thing is just this great opportunity for kids to do something with real-world application,” Ewen said. “It’s amazing just having this facility. … our enrollment has already seen a bit of an uptick.”