STAPLES, Minn. — A community research project in Staples involving indoor gardens is set to continue growing.

The hydroponics project started in 2020 with Great River Energy, Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative and the Electrical Power Research Institute hoping to learn new technology and increase access to fresh produce. And even with kale as the chosen plant, local organizations rooted for the success of the hydroponics pod. The pod, planted at the Central Lakes College Staples campus, is a shipping container with room for 5,820 kale plants.

“I didn’t know how things were going to grow in here, it’s kind of a weird concept with there being no sunlight and things like that, so just seeing it go from a little seed to your big plant and harvesting it, I think that has been the coolest aspect,” CLC research analyst Noah Boelter shared with Minnesota educators in a virtual tour on July 13.

The partnership is called "'Sota Grown" and has helped develop a fully enclosed hydroponic container for growing fresh plants all year long — to supplement existing agriculture practices in communities across the state.

The pod, equivalent to one acre of crops, is a supplement to traditional farming not a replacement, as TWEC member service manager Allison Uselman said. Although kale is the focus of the two year project, the team has experimented with growing basil, swiss chard, lemon balm and chives. Romaine lettuce, butterhead lettuce and salad mixes are next on the list — and after a year of only kale, Boelter is excited for the new opportunities.

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Each kale seed, planted by hand, starts in the nursery before being transplanted to vertical panels. The kale takes 12 weeks to reach maturity. The team of four staff members and interns plant and transplant on Wednesdays and harvest on Mondays.

“Kale is pretty forgiving, which is very fortunate for us,” Boelter said after sharing about a frozen pump during the winter. The kale wilted and bounced back in a matter of days. The team is also learning about flooding and nutrient dosing in the pod.

With the expected growth of indoor agriculture, Uselman said electrical companies will need to prepare for the change. For example, the pod uses the most energy when most other customers could have off-peak rates. The light and water systems run from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily. The kale is watered for five minutes every 45 minutes. The electricity is about $600 a month.

“It’s education with students, it’s giving back and feeding our communities, and Todd-Wadena has the opportunity then to research all the electrical side of things and really understand this industry before it grows to a larger state,” Uselman said.

How long does it take to harvest the kale?

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  • 1 hour

    18%

  • 2-3 hours

    55%

  • 4 or more hours

    27%

The pod’s water usage depends on the humidity levels outside, with the most water used in the winter — about 10.5 gallons every day—and about five gallons a day in the summer. The two water tanks deliver water above the panels and water behind the plants. There are also several different nutrients added, such as one to adjust pH levels.

“In the summertime the pod does not use a whole lot of water because the HVAC unit has a dehumidifier built into it and that’s recirculating around a gallon of water an hour that gets dumped back into the pod, so it’s really efficient in the summer,” Boelter explained. “But when it’s winter, the air is so dry that’s when we use the most water.”

The indoor pod means the ability to regulate the temperature, which is a cool 65-68 degrees, and having no pesticides or herbicides used on the plants since most bugs remain outside. There are some drain flies due to the algae.

The red LED lights in the Sota Grown pod at Central Lakes College are the only source of heat. The lights and water run from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily.
Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal, July 2021
The red LED lights in the Sota Grown pod at Central Lakes College are the only source of heat. The lights and water run from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal, July 2021

As for sunlight, the LED lights are the only heat source in the pod, as Boelter said, though it is also insulated. The red and blue lights support stem growth and leaf density.

The process yields about 20 pounds of kale a week — and on a record week 43 pounds — or over 1,000 pounds as of July 5. All of the kale is donated to Lakewood Health System, who shares the kale through the Food Farmacy and Hilltop Regional Kitchen. The Kitchen uses the kale in specific meals for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and people being discharged from the hospital. People can also receive free kale at the summer farmer’s market on Thursdays.

As Lakewood’s Community Health Coordinator, Amy Wiese works with about 70-100 bags of kale a week to find where it can best be served. She said the kale lasts about two weeks in the fridge.

People also receive kale recipes for new ways to enjoy the vegetable. Wiese enjoys massaging the kale to break down the bitterness and then eating it in a salad. Other favorites are kale chips and soups.

“We just see the benefits of this project and recognize the positive impact that healthy food can have on individuals and in the community,” Wiese said. The organizations also hope to address local food deserts. “It’s really amazing that we are able to provide fresh produce all year with this pod” even with snow on the ground for six months of the year.

The seeds grown and sown in the community have finished their process with new seeds set to germinate, grow to maturity and be harvested and packaged in four to eight hours for their short drive up the road.