Robbinsville Township hydroponic farm coordinator Kyle Clement stands in front of the township’s Leafy Green Machine March 20, 2019. (Photo by Erin Kamel.)

The 320-square-foot upcycled shipping container sitting outside the senior center in Robbinsville’s municipal complex doesn’t look like much from the street. But inside is a state of the art vertical hydroponic farming system that feeds families in need every week.

Since its introduction just 15 months ago, the hydroponic farm, alongside Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, has aided in feeding hundreds of children in Mercer County through its Send Hunger Packing program.

This month, Robbinsville Township Mayor Dave Fried will officially recognize the partnership between the farm and food bank, a project he’s been passionate about since day one.

The proceeds from Fried’s State of the Township address will go to Mercer Street Friends Food Bank and its Send Hunger Packing program. The annual State of Robbinsville Township “Pay it Forward” event will be held at The Stone Terrace by John Henry’s on Tuesday, April 30.

Right now, the farm is running a trial period to test the potential to grow herbs like basil and cilantro in order to expand its variety of crops.

The Leafy Green Machine already houses over 3,000 crops including lettuce, kale, Swiss chard and collard greens—and requires just 10 gallons of water per day to do so. The farm uses 90 percent less water than conventional agriculture methods because of its closed recirculating system, according to Robbinsville hydroponic farm coordinator Kyle Clement.

With modern plant science and plant nutrition, hydroponic farmers like Clement know exactly what their crops need to grow. They provide the nutrients, light, temperature and humidity the plants require to thrive using modern technology and limited space.

Elements like light and air quality are controlled through a computer sensor and timer to maintain an optimal habitat for growth. A nutrient-rich solution is fed to the plants through water emitters.

“We can create an environment that provides all of the necessary resources precisely,” says Clement, highlighting how the farm’s technology prevents wasting resources—such as overuse of water or electricity—as it achieves the plants’ near perfect growth.

Once the plants are harvested, Mercer Street Friends Food Bank distributes heads of lettuce—the farm’s staple crop—to children who are facing “food insecurity” in various school districts in Mercer County every week. This year, the farm began bagging spring mix salads for the students, too.

When the township purchased the container, it already had Mercer Street Friends Food Bank and its recipients in mind. Clement and Robbinsville Township recreation manager Kevin Holt met with MSF in early 2018 to show them what they had grown and make their partnership official.

With the indoor farming solution, children in need can look forward to getting their hands on leafy greens year round.

Even better, it’s living lettuce. So people can harvest and replant it and it’ll regrow, says Clement. Some of their recipients have set up window gardens and have gotten multiple harvests from one head of lettuce.

Crops are also distributed to senior citizens. Seniors at the town’s senior center are involved in the farm’s growing process from start to finish. They have a hand in everything—from planting the seeds to packaging the five-ounce spring salad mix bags.

The community’s response to the hydroponic farm has been overwhelmingly positive. The farm currently has over two dozen trained volunteers on rotation to help maintain its crops.

Meanwhile, the green and white container continues to introduce students to a new take on farming with modern technology through tours and educational workshops, offering opportunities for STEM students and those interested in farming.

Just a few months ago, the entire fourth grade class of Sharon Elementary School—around 250 students—toured the farm over the span of five days.

Clement says kids are responsive to the tours.

“They just light up,” Clement said.

Together, Clement and Robbinsville Township officials continue to build connections between organizations and join people together in the battle against hunger. Is there another hydroponic farming container in the future? It’s likely, Clement said.

“The farm has already achieved everything we set out for it to do,” he said. “Now it’s about doubling down, expanding, and involving more people in order to give more.”