Horticulture students stand behind their first crop of lettuce varieties in the MCC Greenhouse. Growing produce on campus for MCC's cafeteria and culinary management program saves money and supports the College's sustainability goals. Pictured are, from left, David Nabong, adjunct instructor; Brett Brandt, Jamie Niemeyer, Luis Hull, Mandy Hood and Betty Carmon. Not pictured is Javier Manzano.
The McHenry County College (MCC) cafeteria now offers salad greens, herbs and lettuces for sandwiches from a new local source, right down the hallway, in the College's new hydroponics program located in the MCC greenhouse.
The hydroponics program began last fall with the Introduction to Hydroponics (HRT290) class and continues as an independent study course this spring for students pursuing certificates or degrees in horticulture. Hydroponics is a system of horticulture that grows plants without soil and uses mineral nutrient solutions. Horticulture students grow seeds in small pots or trays under special lighting and then transfer the seedlings to troughs filled with water that is treated with a nutrient solution.
"I think it’s awesome to have this kind of collaboration," said Sandra Johnston, food service director. "We've been waiting to do this for a long time. It makes sense and the quality is tremendous," she said, referring to the 36 heads of Romaine and other varieties of lettuce that was recently delivered by hand.
Johnston said one of the advantages of receiving weekly shipments of from the hydroponics program is the college doesn't need to pay for labor, distribution or fuel for shipping the product from a farm or warehouse to the college.
"This will save us money and the students and staff will have super fresh salads," she said. "Plus, the students in culinary and horticulture classes will see firsthand the whole cycle of food production."
She estimated the college will save about 20-30 percent in produce purchases with the on-site hydroponics operation. The hydroponics program also produces green peppers, herbs, tomatoes and squash.
"I’m really pleased with our progress,” said David Nabong, hydroponics instructor at MCC. "It surprised me how much the plants exploded into ready-to-pick in just six weeks. We set our goals high—providing a class that’s meaningful for the students. We have an opportunity to provide for the college a local service that’s really visible and you can’t get much more local than down the hall,” he said.
"Hydroponics is a growing trend," Nabong said. "There’s a lot of interest in it recently, especially in aquaponics," Nabong explained.
Aquaponics is the technique of combining aquaculture and hydroponics, where the waste stream from aquaculture is used as the nutrient stream for hydroponics.
"Hydroponics is a cleaner produce so there's no soil-borne disease and it uses significantly less water and less space than traditional growing methods,” Nabong explained. "It also has a shorter growing time of six to seven weeks for lettuce, compared to 8 to 18 weeks, depending on the variety and the season for field-grown lettuce."
Nabong has worked in the horticulture field for more than 15 years and currently works fulltime in tech support and sales at Brew & Grow in Crystal Lake. He also is an MCC horticulture graduate and is working toward a bachelor's degree in general studies from Columbia College of Missouri. He was recruited by MCC last summer to start the hydroponics program at MCC.
Nabong said he and Johnston started talking about the idea of growing food on campus for the cafeteria and discussed the interest and volume of food that will be needed. "By producing these crops, we hope to augment the College's sustainability goals by growing a desired product and reducing the reliance and costs of outside sources," Nabong said.
The hydroponics course takes the skills learned from other courses in MCC's Horticulture program and refines them to a very specific crop production technique.
"This is not a new method of production, but one that is becoming more and more widespread and the demand for that skill set is growing," Nabong said.
"We're taking a new direction by expanding into the food crops area of horticulture," said Bruce Spangenberg, horticulture department chair and instructor. "Fortunately, we have someone like Dave who is extremely dedicated to make this program as complete as possible. We will continue to offer this course and some other new ones as we develop a new Urban Agriculture curriculum within the MCC Horticulture Program."
Horticulture students are excited about the hydroponics program and have shared positive feedback.
"I love the fact that we can grow food indoors in the greenhouse because it's less messy and has no weeds or soil pests, so there’s no pesticides," said Jamie Niemeyer of Lake in the Hills. "Collaborating with the cafeteria is a great way to have two departments working together," she added.
"This is pretty cool. I'm thinking of putting a system in my basement," said Mandy Hood of Wonder Lake.