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PHCC hopes lettuce tests lead to jobs
Light experiments funded with grant
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Above, Assistant Professor of Viticulture/Enology and Horticulture John Ayers of Patrick Henry Community College stands with lettuce plants on Thursday. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
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Friday, March 16, 2012

By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Lettuce is in the spotlight in uptown Martinsville.

On Thursday, Patrick Henry Community College opened its new Agricultural Research Center to the public. The center, which was created through $30,000 in grants, aims to discover how to grow plants using the least amount of energy possible.

To do that, employees and students at the center are growing four varieties of lettuce and one herb using LED (light emitting diode) lighting and hydroponics, a method of growing plants in water rather than soil. They hope to determine whether empty warehouses, such as those once used by furniture and textile manufacturers in Martinsville and Henry County, could be used to grow marketable crops of lettuce and other salad greens.

The lettuce varieties being grown at the center are Great Lakes, Romaine, Buttercrunch and Red Sails. Coriander is the herb.

Racks of plants line the walls on both sides of the former storefront at 133 E. Main St. On the left side are vertical hydroponic systems under fluorescent lights, which are used to grow plants now, and on the right are horizontal hydroponic systems under multicolored LED lighting. Results from the two lighting sources will be compared.

The LED lighting is the preferred option because it consumes less energy than fluorescent lighting, said Jeff Fields, dean of the applied science and engineering technology division at Patrick Henry Community College.

Two types of LED lights with different color spectrums are being tested in the center. Data will be collected on the effects of each type and of various fertilizer formulas. The data will be used to find the best combination for growth, according to a news release.

The horizontal hydroponic system includes recycled shelving, plywood and 10-foot sections of plastic gutters. The system delivers water and fertilizers to the plants.

Any excess water drains into barrels at the end of the gutters and is reused to hydrate the plants, Fields said.

There are about 240 plants under LED lighting and about 160 plants under fluorescent lighting, said Brian Roach, ARC lab technician.

A crop of lettuce can be produced about every 30 days for a rate of about 11 crops a year, Fields said.

The advantage of a hydroponic system compared with traditional farming is that PHCC can grow plants "365 days a year," Roach added.

Roach, who graduated from PHCC's agribusiness program last fall, said the center is innovative because the use of LED lighting is "not common ... and it's a really green production," he said, referring to the efficient use of energy.

In the center, "we can keep insects and diseases down" as well as control the temperature, amount of moisture and nutrients the plants receive, Roach said.

Although the focus now is on lettuce, Roach said the center hopes to incorporate more plants in the future, such as beets and mushrooms.

All could be grown inside, without soil, ARC officials indicated.

PHCC agribusiness student Donald Foley finds that impressive.

"Most food, I thought, came from dirt," Foley said.

He finds the project fascinating and said he feels that "anytime you can grow food, it's always a plus."�

The project "looks like it's going to work," said Aleen Wilson, a master gardener with the Virginia Cooperative Extension who was on hand Thursday.

Wilson said she likes the idea of having "12 months a year that we can get fresh greens."�

During the first year of the project, the lettuce will not be available for sale or consumption, but the hope is that the project later on "provides a marketable product," said John Ayers, assistant professor of viticulture/enology and horticulture at PHCC.

PHCC also hopes that the project will help create jobs, Fields said. Jobs that could be created are horticulturists; sales and marketing staff; and additional manpower to monitor and harvest the lettuce, he said.

Horticulture, agribusiness and viticulture students at PHCC will use the center to do labs and internships, Fields said, adding that the project will allow students to learn about watering, nutrition, heating, lighting, efficiency, sustainability and conservation through the energy-saving lights and reuse of the drained water.

Students with the Piedmont Governor's School for Science, Mathematics and Technology will help with data collection, the release said.

Ayers said he and Fields had an opportunity to apply for a grant last September and were brainstorming about possible uses for the old, vacant buildings in the area when they came up with the idea for the project. The idea fit the grant specifications, and it was approved for the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant through the Virginia Department of Agriculture, Ayers said.

The college is writing a second grant application for funds for marketing and has plans for a third phase to install solar panels to power the lights and solar thermal panels to heat the center, Fields said.

Fred Martin Associates owns the building.


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