When people think about a vegetable garden, towers of crops are not necessarily what come to mind — but that is what greets people in the Texas A&M Urban Farm United greenhouse.
The student-run organization, often called TUFU for short, was developed last year to address food insecurity on the Texas A&M campus by providing food to the 12th Can food pantry.
The urban farm, which is located off Hensel Drive past Becky Gates Children’s Center, has 24 towers that can be used to grow any of 150 different plant species. The automated aeroponic system requires 90% less land and water but produces 30% more yield, TUFU director and co-founder Lisette Templin said. An aeroponic system means the plants’ roots are exposed to air most of the time and receive nutrient-rich water in a raindrop method.
“The beauty of the system is it allows people — ordinary people — to take control of their food,” she said. Templin is an instructional assistant professor in the department of health and kinesiology at A&M and said she does not have any experience or training in agriculture.
While some students involved in TUFU studied horticulture or agriculture, the organization’s members and capstone students who volunteer in the greenhouse include representatives from many different colleges and departments.
Emma Mills, a senior biomedical sciences major and capstone student, said she had never tried to grow a garden before but she’s had fun getting involved with something outside of her major.
“It’s really calming just to come to the greenhouse and grow things and then also know that I’m getting to help with food insecurity,” she said taking a break from spraying some of the plants with a garlic-based natural pesticide.
Half of the vertical towers, which are harvested every five weeks, will be used to grow four types of lettuce and two types of spinach to donate to the 12th Can.
The other half will be used for the group’s new venture, TUFU Market. On those towers will be leafy greens, mini peppers, tomatoes and squash. The club is also growing lettuce and Thai basil that will be sold to the club’s first restaurant partner, Nam Café.
“They are the first to join the buy local, buy aeroponic movement,” she said. “I like to call it the B-CS Food Forest movement, just because when all this is grown it looks like a forest.”
TUFU Market is part of the organization’s efforts to become sustainable. It began with a one-year $60,000 grant from the Aggie Green Fund to combat food insecurity on campus. Then, a $4,200 Innovation [X] grant that will expire in August 2021 is helping launch the market.
In addition to selling to restaurants, the TUFU Market will sell seedlings to the community, make its own basil pesto to sell and create a cookbook of healthy recipes that require little money and time.
“This project is not just about growing food but growing community, because food brings us all together,” Templin said. “That just warms my heart to no ends.”
Director of Operations for TUFU Stephon Warren, who is pursuing a master’s in plant breeding, said the organization can serve as a model for how urban agriculture can help communities.
“I’ve always had this dream of being able to feed the world somehow,” he said, with urban agriculture as a solution. “I just didn’t think I would get the opportunity to practice it while I’m in college, so it’s just been a really great experience.”
A lot of food insecurity goes back to nutrition, he said, and he hopes its ongoing donations to the 12th Can and TUFU Market can help with part of that. They also are exploring the possibility of processing the land next to the greenhouse to establish row crops.
“I do see this as a solution,” he said. “If every city could have a big greenhouse like this, I feel like we could do it.”
As TUFU Market launches later this month, Warren said, he is excited about moving from a money deficit to money gain and creating a sustainable organization that is not dependent on donations.
Van Tran, owner of Nam Café, said he is excited to be the organization’s first restaurant partner and to begin using the fresh, organic produce in his dishes.
“It was a no-brainer for me because, first, we would be able to get organic produce — lettuce and basil — but, secondly, also an opportunity to be a part of the community,” he said.
The majority of his customer base at the Northgate location is the Texas A&M community, so he feels the partnership goes both ways. He is supporting TUFU, and the TUFU produce make his dishes even better, he said, by allowing him to use the local ingredients.
The first TUFU Market Day will be Oct. 24 at the Brazos Valley Farmers Market at 500 N. Main Street in Downtown Bryan from 9 a.m. to noon.
For more information about the TAMU Urban Farm United, search “TUFU — TAMU Urban Farm United” on Facebook.