Student veterans Bret Timmons and Ryan Anderson have transformed a corner of AGRIscapes into a hotbed for plant research.
The agriculture students converted two cargo containers into hydroponic pods. The Marine veterans wanted to create a place where students could do their own research and grow plants without fear of outside contamination in a mobile, self-contained, cost-effective production facility.
“Small seeds, diseases, fungus or bacteria could wreck the soil or hurt the plants,” says Anderson, a plant science major who was born in Fontana, and raised in Idaho Falls.
“We wanted it to be as clean as possible so we don’t to go in and spray the plants,” says Timmons, an agricultural science student from Phoenix, Ariz.
Timmons’ and Anderson’s efforts are just the latest example of how student veterans are making an impact at Cal Poly Pomona.
A native of Phoenix, Timmons enlisted a year after high school. He spent four years as a Marine infantryman, including a tour in Iraq. Born in Fontana, Anderson grew up in Idaho Falls, enlisted right out of high school, and spent five years in the Marines as an electronics and optics maintenance technician before joining the construction industry.
Coming from the Marines into a campus environment was an adjustment for both men.
“It doesn’t run like the military,” says Timmons, who came to Cal Poly Pomona to study plant science, having developed an interest with plants at his family’s ranch.
“In the military, there’s a command structure. If you outrank someone and order them to do something, it gets done. Out here, that guarantee is taken away. You can’t mandate anything, and that uncertainty is frustrating,” added Anderson, who transferred from Saddleback College to study landscape architecture, but discovered he liked plant science more because of his interest in sustainability.
While many of their younger, fellow students are still figuring out what they want to do, Timmons and Anderson knew what they wanted: the hydroponic pod project was an opportunity to get the most out of their educational experience.
Timmons had spent the summer at Archi’s Acres in Escondido, a small farm that runs a program with Cal Poly Pomona to train veterans and ag students in hydroponics and organic farming.
“You come out of it with a business model and everything you need to start your own small business,” he says.
Although the greenhouses at AGRIscapes have hydroponic systems, the space is limited and often used for faculty projects. Students did not have a dedicated space for their own hydroponic projects.
But Anderson found out about a student enterprise program that allows students to start a business with help and resources from the university.
The two students conceived the idea of creating hydroponic pods out in cargo containers at AGRIscapes and obtained the support of the plant sciences department, including Anderson’s advisor, Assistant Professor Aaron Fox, and the College of Agriculture.
“This matches well with the college’s strategic goals, provides opportunities for the two students – as well as others – to participate in a new and pertinent form of urban agriculture, and particularly the learn-by-doing philosophy we have here at Cal Poly Pomona,” says Professor Valerie Mellano, chair of the plant sciences department.
The two 40-foot-long shipping containers cost $4,000 each and were paid for by start-up funds from a faculty member and funding from the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program. The plant science department and the nursery at AGRIscapes are providing the other supplies.
But the students had to modify the containers before they could grow anything inside, especially so they could regulate the climate.
Anderson’s engineering and construction experience came in handy.
“The general, hands-on knowledge for tools and understanding measurement were important,” he says. “If you’ve been in the construction industry or been a craftsman, you kind of have to plan out the building process before you start going at it.”
He and Timmons installed framing in the containers and arranged for a company to spray the container walls with 3 ½ inches of foam insulation. They cut a window in the side of one container so visitors can see what is growing without contaminating the plants; the other container is windowless, permitting the students to grow mushrooms that thrive in the dark.
Anderson and Timmons had an air conditioning unit and artificial lighting installed and put up racks to hold the tubs and bag where they will grow their produce. They also installed an AutoPot self-watering hydroponic system, thermometers, oxygen sensors and fans that operate around the clock.
Timmons plans to grow cilantro, black kale and basil, while Anderson will grow oyster mushrooms in bags hanging from the racks. He chose oyster mushrooms as his crop due to their short production cycle, high yield potential and preferred flavor profile. Anderson believes he can grow 600 pounds of mushrooms a week.
“We can pack it in pretty deep. We’ve got racks from floor to ceiling,” he says.
Although the two student veterans will learn much from planting and growing, they have already benefited from the experience of building the hydroponic pods. The project required them to learn more about agribusiness. Timmons plans to sell his produce to a restaurant chain, while Anderson will sell his to a mushroom grower.
In addition, the two have had to network with suppliers and work out deals for equipment. Both sides stand to benefit, the students say.
In exchange for the equipment, students can provide suppliers research information, Timmons says.
“We’re more than happy to do a write up with findings about how the system works,” he says.
“The companies can say to prospective customers, ‘If you want to look at the system in action, you can swing by Cal Poly Pomona, make an appointment with the nursery at AGRIscapes, and see it,” Anderson adds.
Timmons believes entry-level farmers can run the hydroponic containers, regardless of their location or access to land; the containers can even function in extreme environments where conventional farming is impossible. The systems use less space, water, fertilizer and pesticides than typical farming practices.
He also was contacted by an investor who wants to sell hydroponic pods as a system, which might turn into some consulting work.
“I’ve built a container from the ground up,” Timmons says. “I know what it takes, what you have to do, and what you need.”
The students’ efforts even attracted the attention of University President Soraya M. Coley, who brought a congressman out to visit the project.
“When the college president knows you by name and shows an interest in your work as a student, it makes you feel like what you’re doing is valuable and making a difference,” Anderson says.
The hydroponic pod project will help educate the public on agriculture, which was the main reason AGRIscapes was created in 2001.
The cargo containers will remain part of Timmons’ and Anderson’s legacy at Cal Poly Pomona: they will stay at AGRIscapes, even after Timmons and Anderson graduate, giving future generations of students a chance to learn about hydroponics, urban agriculture and research.
“I find it very satisfying. It’s something I could finish and leave my mark,” Anderson says.
“I can come back as an alumni and old man, and I can look at the next generation and say, ‘You should take advantage of that,’” Timmons says, ‘because I built it.’”
The campus community can visit the containers at celebration from noon to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 17. The projects will move into production after that and access will be limited.
The containers are in front of the greenhouses at AGRIscapes, near the Farm Store.
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