Higher education

University of Iowa group grows lettuce in pipes

Students could win $1,000 in inaugural competition

Tim Schoon/University of Iowa

Grant Gregory (second from right) harvests lettuce March 24 as (from left) Andrew Hirst, Natalie Spetter and Jake Krischel look on in the greenhouse in Biology Building East on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. The lettuce was delivered to Dining Services in Burge Hall.
Tim Schoon/University of Iowa Grant Gregory (second from right) harvests lettuce March 24 as (from left) Andrew Hirst, Natalie Spetter and Jake Krischel look on in the greenhouse in Biology Building East on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. The lettuce was delivered to Dining Services in Burge Hall.
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For the past couple of months, a group of University of Iowa students has been growing lettuce in an unconventional way.

“I’ve known about hydroponics for a while,” said UI senior Grant Gregory, who works at the university’s office of sustainability. “There’s probably a market for it in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and it is economically viable.”

Gregory’s group — which also includes seniors Jake Krishel, Natalie Spetter, and Andrew Hirst and junior Cecelia Wolf — is using PVC pipes and the nutrient film technique to grow the lettuce in Biology Building East.

“It uses about one-tenth or one-third of water as traditional lettuce,” Gregory said. “I’m operating in a five by ten feet space and can grow about 200 heads of lettuce every 70 to 80 days.”

The lettuce is being given to one of the university’s dining halls, Gregory said.

“Given we’re operating in a university greenhouse, it’s only fair we give it to the university,” Gregory said. “They’re going to do tabling event and market it and educate people on what they’re eating.”

Gregory said he thinks students will love the lettuce.

“I’m not a big lettuce guy, but I like salad,” Gregory said. “It tastes really good. I think they’re going to like it.

Gregory’s group embarked upon the hydroponics project as part of the inaugural Frontier-Tippie Impact Competition, in which three teams were chosen to implement plans that promote sustainability on campus. The teams were given $500 in funding for their projects, which will be judged April 23 by Tippie Dean Sarah Gardial, Iowa City Council member Rockne Cole and Tony Bedard, CEO of Frontier Co-op, said Sara Maples, manager of research support and college sustainability at the Tippie College of Business. The winning team will receive $1,000.

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“If we win, fingers crossed, I have to pay my mom back,” Gregory said. “I went $150 over budget on the system. It was a learning curve. But ethically I want to split the money five ways. I would invest the rest into private-sector development.”

Gregory said the team’s technique has drawn interest from Mark Ginsburg, owner of Ginsburg Jewelers and teachers at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, as well as John’s Grocery, and some of his friends have expressed interest in carrying the project forward after the competition.

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