For months, a small greenhouse in Camden County has grown heads of lettuce, cherry tomatoes and more using advanced growing methods for the benefit of the local community.
The Camden County Office of Sustainability, which runs the Camden County Environmental Campus at Lakeland in Gloucester Township, has been growing since mid August.
The greenhouse is able to grow well over 600 heads of lettuce per month at its peak using hydroponic growing methods, meaning it does not use soil but instead a myriad of growing methods that allow a reservoir of nutrients mixed with water to feed the plants.
However, the last batch of lettuce for the growing season currently sits in the humid greenhouse waiting to be harvested.
As summer approaches, it will soon be too warm to grow lettuce in the greenhouse, leading to the county preparing to shut down growing for the summer and cleaning the various pipes, chambers and tubs before starting again next August.
Valerie Brown, program coordinator with the office of sustainability, says that the beauty of the hydroponics greenhouse, outside of showcasing futuristic growing methods, is to be able to grow lettuce year-round despite outside temperatures while saving water and energy.
While watching the temperature throughout the year, the team rotates what types of lettuce it grows in the greenhouse to match the temperature to maximize its effectiveness.
“We’ve grown at least 10 different varieties of lettuce here,” said Brown. “We color-code them based on early season, mid-season and late season, so right now we do late season for what can tolerate the heat.”
Over the past few months, arugula, romaine, butterhead and many more types of lettuce have been grown, harvested and donated to the Cathedral Kitchen and Neighborhood Center in Camden, as well as other nonprofits and community groups.
The greenhouse’s safe, trustworthy practices even came in handy near the end of 2018 when an E. coli outbreak swept across the United States for the second time that year. It was able to provide the Philadelphia Zoo with food for its giraffes and other animals since the zoo was unable to purchase from its traditional locations in fear the animals may get sick from contaminated batches.
Now, as the season comes to a close after a successful year on multiple fronts for the county and its greenhouse, aspirations for the future are continuing to bubble up.
Freeholder Jonathan Young said the boldness and practices of the greenhouse are showing its effectiveness and importance in the coming future. Young hopes residents see what the greenhouse is doing, as well as other local farms and produce stands, in hopes that Camden County residents might start to grow their own food in the coming years.
“The more you can educate people on local growing, healthy foods, growing your own vegetables and knowing what’s in your vegetables, I think you’re going to start to turn a lot of things around,” said Young. “I hope you’ll start to see people more sustainable in the future – I think the fruit stands are exploding recently and people are starting to catch on to the farm-to-table mentality.”
Brown and Young estimate the greenhouse grew at least 2,000 heads of lettuce over the past year. Moving forward, Young says he expects to see that number skyrocket even higher due to upcoming plans.
Although nothing is official and a potential building is still being designed, Young says the next phase for the Office of Sustainability includes a long-term expansion of the campus, including an additional building that will include more space for growing, a kitchen, storage space for fruits and vegetables as well as various spots for educational projects to work with interested residents, and potentially even college students in the area.
“It’ll grow our operations as well as allow for educational demonstrations for the public,” said Young. “We’ll really be able to get in there and show folks how to grow, clean, cut, package and everything.”
Included in future plans is the potential for expanding the list of already grown fruits and vegetables at the Lakeland Campus, although nothing has officially been announced.
However, Young says that the county is intent on moving forward with sustainable methods in the coming months and years.
“You’re going to start to see that footprint down there really start to grow,” said Young. “We’ve made a commitment to be all in on sustainability.”