Greenhouse Designed to Promote Food Sovereignty

Diné College is testing a new solar powered greenhouse that grows food hydroponically. Higher yields and year-round harvests are the goal.

By Melanie Lenart

Murat Kacira of the University of Arizona (center) explains some components of a hydroponics growing system to students from the University of Arizona and Diné College. Photo by Torran Anderson

Diné College is starting construction this month on an off-grid greenhouse featuring soilless growing systems as part of effort to use advanced technology to support food sovereignty on the Dine nation.

“This is going to be new for us because we have used the hoop house method for years. And this is going to be a next step for us, using a fully functional greenhouse,” explained Bryan Neztsosie, research and outreach coordinator for Diné College’s Land Grant Office in Tsaile, Arizona, located on the Navajo Nation.

A team of faculty, students and Land Grant Office specialists from Diné College and the University of Arizona will work to convert an existing hoop house—a relatively simple curved structure that provides crops some protection from winds and cold—into a higher technology greenhouse, he said. Many of the participating UA graduate students are Indigenous themselves.

The National Science Foundation supports this joint effort via the Indigenous Food, Energy and Water Security and Sovereignty project, known as Indige-FEWSS. The project focuses on developing “sustainable, real-world solutions”—in this case, a solar-powered greenhouse suitable for growing food through the hot summers and cold winters on the high-elevation lands of the Navajo Nation, which expands into Utah and New Mexico.

The greenhouse will feature solar panels to run an evaporative cooling system and sensors, a concrete walkway, and a propane-powered heating system. Roughly half of the residents on the Navajo Nation have no electricity in their homes, so in the long term the design could serve as a prototype for off-grid farmers. Even at the grid-connected Tsaile site, the design will protect plants from potential overheating during hot summer afternoons.

“I’m sure most reservations have experienced this, where they get power outages, and we are no different,” Neztsosie said. “We’ll get power outages for either 10 seconds, or it could be hours. That’s where this off-the-grid system will be most beneficial.”

The greenhouse will serve as an experiment and also as a model for growing food year-round and thus improving food sovereignty. Another potential benefit beyond a hoop house is that it can help farmers on the Navajo Nation grow in areas where soil nutrition is low, Neztsosie said.

Instead of growing crops directly in the soil or in raised beds, as was their practice in the hoop house, the Land Grant professionals will be incorporating experimental hydroponic designs and use them for research and teaching. They’ll be creating a shallow pond system and testing it for growing tomatoes, a coconut-husk system for growing strawberries, and a “Dutch bucket” system for growing lettuce. The latter has plants growing directly in perlite, a popcorn-like rock made from volcanic material that is often used to improve drainage in potting soil.

“This is going to be the first (time) where we’re actually using hydroponics,” Neztsosie said. With hydroponic systems, “all the water and nutrients are supplied from a tank that goes directly to the rooting system of whatever you’re growing. If you can, just imagine like a rain gutter and the water constantly flowing. The lettuce roots will be touching that water, and that’s how they’re going to be absorbing the nutrients and the water that they need to grow.”

After working out any kinks and developing food safety protocol, the team is planning to share the output of the greenhouse with the college cafeteria, potentially on a year-round basis. This approach will make locally grown food more visible to students of the college, which offers bachelor’s as well as associate’s degrees.

This approach also will contribute to the Navajo Nation’s food sovereignty, something the tribe values more than ever since facing food shortages during Covid. With deaths from Covid rivaling rates in New York and elsewhere during the early months of the pandemic, desperate leaders enacted a lockdown that limited transportation into the Navajo Nation. Food supply dwindled, and residents faced empty shelves in many of the 13 grocery stores that serve a reservation larger than West Virginia.

Amidst the lockdown, the University of Arizona was allowed to truck in about 900 pounds of fresh produce grown in its Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, giving members of the Nation a preview of the flavor of hydroponics-grown vegetables.

The “controlled environment” in the center’s name is another way of saying greenhouses, and they can range from low tech to almost completely automated, according to Murat Kacira, director of the Tucson-based CEAC.

Neztsosie said he saw a tomato plant with a 60-foot-long stem growing in one of the center’s greenhouses when he took a short course as part of his training for the greenhouse development project. The three-day intensive course on Greenhouse Crop Production and Engineering Design includes lessons on incorporating solar power into crop production, as well as hydroponics.

Kacira said Indigenous participants in the course often ask whether traditional foods such as corn, squash, melons and beans grow well in greenhouses.

“That’s always an interest. They ask ‘can we grow our traditional crops?’ And the answer is yes, definitely,” he said. “I think you can grow anything. It’s just a matter of what kind of system to consider to grow that.”

Some of the community members and farmers he’s met with on the Navajo Nation are interested in growing newer favorites as well, such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and leafy greens, he said. Also, the gadgetry fascinates many students.

“The younger generation is also very interested in terms of the technology,” he noted. “They respect the tradition of their culture and they’re aware of that. What they’re kind of looking for is ‘how can we use technology to better support our traditional agricultural needs’.”

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Melanie Lenart is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.

Story published March 7, 2022

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