Aquaponics Grows Healthy Eats for UM Students

If you’ve stopped in the Corner Store on the UM campus recently you may have seen it: a glowing frame of tubes and pipes with a few green sprouts peeking through. 

It may look like an art installation, but it has much more practical applications: growing food. Those tubes bring just the right amount of water, and just the right nutrients, to nurture leafy greens, herbs and edible flowers — eatables for UM students, faculty and staff.

Aquaponics system

The 200-gallon system was designed using the principles of aquaponics, a soil-less growing process that combines plants, fish and beneficial bacteria in a self-contained symbiotic environment. The system uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming and, thanks to high-efficiency LED grow lights, will be able to support plants year-round.
The project is a partnership between UM Dining and Galactic Farms, a Missoula-based, sustainable urban farming company founded by UM alumnus Jeff Pernell. The system replaces a smaller one that Pernell designed while he was a student in UM’s Environmental Studies program.
“Jeff developed some of the skills and knowledge needed to start a business in aquaponics as a student working with us,” UM Dining Sustainability Director Rebecca Wade said.
The aquaponic farming system is part of UM’s commitment to supporting sustainable agriculture. Through the Farm to College Program, UM brings fresh, locally grown and locally processed food to campus. When UM Dining and the University’s Environmental Studies program initiated Farm to College in 2003, it was the first of its kind in Montana. Now UM Dining purchases about 25 percent of its food supplies from 138 Montana farms, ranches and businesses. That’s 5 percent and five years ahead of UM’s goal to source 20 percent of its food from humane, local and sustainable sources by 2020.
And, this spring UM Dining received a $10,000 Growth Through Agriculture grant from the Montana Agriculture Development Council. The funds will support the expansion of the on-campus edible garden space. The grant funding will be matched by UM Dining.
“We are showing students that UM Dining values locally sourced and fresh ingredients and that we are committed to innovative sustainability programming,” Wade said.
The multifaceted program also demonstrates UM’s commitment to Montana’s economic development. In fiscal year 2014, UM Dining infused the state’s economy with $866,752 in local purchases.