There is a farm in the lobby of Panther Dining Hall, but you won’t see hay bales and bovines. It’s farming Florida Tech-style.
The vending-machine sized boxes in the lobby – where the fish tank used to be – are two active, high-tech, soil-free growing operations from the Virginia-based company Babylon Micro-Farms. Described as a “cloud-based vertical farm,” each system can provide cultivation advice and cues on when to harvest – via an app, of course.
That is just one of several unique aspects to this effort, which was spearheaded by Executive Chef Jon Skoviera and Michelle Novak, manager of Panther Grocery. The system automates the process of growing produce through a series of sensors, lights, air channels, nutrients, cameras and irrigation.
More importantly, roughly every six weeks the micro-farms will produce leafy greens, herbs, sprouts and more. The system produces as much produce in 15 square feet of space as 2,000 square feet of traditional farmland, the company said.
Already, a preliminary “mini-harvest” has yielded a batch of pea shoots and micro beet greens.
“We will be using the harvests to supplement our salad bar and to sell in Panther Grocery,” Skoviera said. “Can’t get any fresher than our lobby farm to table.”
In addition to its technology, the micro-farms are exemplars of small-scale sustainable farming. They use no soil, thus no potential runoff; instead, the growing occurs in a water-based medium which is compostable. There is very little fertilizer use, and a low amount of water.
Babylon Micro-Farms was co-founded by two University of Virginia engineering students, Alexander Olesen and Graham Smith, who wanted to design a low-cost “micro-farm” to provide nutritious produce for food-insecure refugees in the Middle East. The company hopes to have more than 600 working micro-farms by the end of 2023.