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Building on a Fruitful Engagement

Grant Helps Pitt Hydroponics Club Expand an Urban Greenhouse and Combat a Food Desert

PITTSBURGH (Feb. 18, 2021) — In the middle of concrete streets and brick buildings in the neighborhood of Homewood, a greenhouse teems with activity.

The Oasis Farm and Fishery produces fresh, local produce for residents and businesses in this community, which is considered a food desert — an area with limited access to fresh, affordable, good-quality foods like fruits and vegetables. Food deserts are a growing problem not only in Pittsburgh but throughout the U.S.

In 2015, Pitt Hydroponics, a University of Pittsburgh student organization, partnered with the Oasis Project, an initiative of the Bible Center Church in Homewood, to produce locally grown, fresh produce for the community and provide instruction in urban farming. 

The urban micro-farm has produced food for Homewood neighbors as well as the Pitt Pantry. Now, the partnership finds itself at a critical moment of expansion.

A new Year of Engagement Grant from the University of Pittsburgh will enable the Pitt Hydroponics Club and the Oasis Project to build its new greenhouse, complete with a microclimate that can produce food year-round, even through the cold months of the Pittsburgh winter.  

"The importance of this partnership is that the ideas and projects are co-created. 

It is another exciting step, on a long journey,” said Pitt Hydroponics advisor David Sanchez, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and assistant director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt. 

“And if we do it right, we will meet real needs in Homewood, inspire transformational solutions for Pittsburgh and beyond, and meet our educational mission for our students."

The Magic of Hydroponics 

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil; the roots instead hang in nutrient-dense water. The method enables plants to grow more quickly with less water, producing a better yield without the need for pesticide or fertilizer. 

With hydroponics, many plants can be grown in a small amount of space, making it well-suited for sustainable urban farming. 

The partnership between Pitt Hydroponics and the Oasis Project has already yielded positive results. The site currently consists of a direct current (DC) powered greenhouse that stores 1,750 gallons of reclaimed rainwater and has both aquaponic and hydroponic food production systems. Oasis Project 3

The farm grows a variety of vegetables and fruits, from hearty greens and lettuce to tomatillos and hot peppers. Last year, it produced more than 500 pounds of food, much of which was used by the Everyday Cafe, a branch of the Bible Center Church.

“Pitt Hydroponics is able to take requests directly from the cafe as to what they would like us to grow for their menu,” said Pitt Hydroponics President William Sauerland, a junior studying computer science. “Having the club’s work go right back into the community is an advantage of working in and with the Homewood community.” 

Though Pitt Hydroponics has strong ties to the Swanson School of Engineering, it is made up of students from across the University who meet regularly to brainstorm, design, build and test hydroponic growing systems. The group created the plan and received funding for the greenhouse. They also designed and built a microclimate in the building’s garage so that both the greenhouse and the garage are usable in the winter to grow crops.

“Since beginning this collaboration, we have been able to accomplish a great deal in a very short time,” said Jerry Potts (BSME ’20), the former vice president of Pitt Hydroponics. “I am really proud of what we have done in so little time and I am really excited to see how the groups continue to expand, especially when there isn’t a pandemic getting in the way.”

In addition to creating a warm microclimate that will lengthen the growing season, the new space will allow the partners to design and test innovative new systems. Once the new greenhouse is built, it will house Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydronic systems, with the capacity to grow around 400 plants.

Cultivating Green Education

The Oasis Farm and Fishery offers hands-on educational programming for Homewood residents and others about urban farming, the parts of the plant, the role of nutrients in the soil, and the plethora of beneficial bugs that help out around the farm. 

By partnering with the University of Pittsburgh, Oasis Farm and Fishery is “working to leverage our combined energy and expertise to help make Homewood a destination for Green workforce training and education, as well as a source for quality, locally grown produce,” said Tacumba Turner, farm manager for the Oasis Project. 

“Our farm is a space where undergraduate students can get exposure to real world application of the concepts and theories they learn about, and it enables them to to put those ideas and insights into use in ways that are meaningful and relevant to the community of Homewood.”

The new greenhouse, funded by the $2,246 Year of Engagement Grant, will also enable more hands-on demonstrations for students who come to the farm to learn about hydroponics.

Oasis Project 2“The best part of working with the community in Homewood is being able to have direct contact with the people we are helping. Pitt Hydroponics spends a lot of its efforts on community engagement at elementary schools in Homewood,” said Sauerland. “We do after-school programs teaching kids the basics of hydroponics and sustainable growing methods. It is fun to work with the elementary school kids and rewarding to be able to share what we learn as a club with them.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for the students to engage with the community, but the construction of the greenhouse—and all the work that follows—provides a safe and productive way to engage with and learn from the community of Homewood. The outdoor, socially distanced work will allow interaction and learning to continue, even as the pandemic stretches on.

“The Oasis Project serves the people of Homewood in many ways, and the partnership with Pitt has brought resources, innovative thinking and best practice from research to our work,” said Cynthia Wallace, Executive Director of the Oasis Project and Executive Pastor at the Bible Center Church. 

“It also means that the Pitt students are not learning in isolation but understand that as knowledge grows, so does responsibility. The role of education is not just for the individual but is for the collective.” 

Author: Maggie Pavlick

Contact: Maggie Pavlick