A magenta glow illuminates the vertical growing towers hanging in the Corner Store monday afternoon. The growing towers are part of a project with UM Dining and alumnus Jeff Pernell that provides a sustainable method of growing food. The system has a tank of perch fish that produce ammonia, which provides nitrogen, an important factor in creating nutrient dense foods. 

A new UM Dining experiment is using vertical growing towers, LED lights and fish to grow food.

The aquaponic system is set up in the Corner Store, growing leafy greens like lettuce, kale, basil and bok choy. UM Dining’s garden manager, Natasha Hegman, said she is hoping to have a first harvest at the end of February.

The term aquaponics is a combination of the words aquaculture, which means to farm aquatic organisms like fish, and hydroponics, which means to grow without soil.

The aquaponic system doesn’t use soil, and uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods. The system includes a tank of perch, fish that produce ammonia. Microbes in the tank then convert the ammonia to nitrogen, an essential element for growing nutrient-rich foods.

UM Dining collaborated with alumnus Jeff Pernell to build an aquaponic system to grow sustainable food, while also providing students with an opportunity for hands-on learning. 

Pernell, who graduated from the University of Montana in the '90s with degrees in business and business education, said his interest in sustainable food systems started while he was teaching in the Flathead Valley and working on an aquaponics program for his students to grow their own food. He came back to UM for continuing education and wanted to learn how to implement aquaponics into institutional food services.

Pernell worked with the environmental studies department and UM Dining to do an independent study and develop an aquaponic system.

His first aquaponic system, which was displayed in the window of the Food Zoo, originally grew microgreens. 

While the system was successful, Pernell said microgreens don’t need the amount of nutrients that an aquaponic system provides. UM Dining asked Pernell to come back and design a bigger system to grow a larger variety of food.

Pernell said the central idea of aquaponics is climate controlled growing, a technique also used in space. After starting his aquaponic design projects with UM Dining, Pernell founded a company devoted to the craft, called Galactic Farms.

“I chose Galactic Farms because I’m a bit of a geek at heart,” he said.

The company designs aquaponic systems and provides local businesses with sustainable food from its own aquaponic system.

While Pernell said he’s interested in aquaponics from a business standpoint, he also feels an obligation to protect the environment.

“We keep on tearing down the natural environment to feed ourselves,” Pernell said. “I want to have a place where my kids can flourish.”

Aquaponics needs a bigger starting investment compared to traditional farming, but has quick returns on multiple levels.

“The new developments in the industry, such as LED grow lighting and vertical farming, allow you to produce a lot more in a smaller footprint, and actually at a lower cost, once the system is in place and operating,” Pernell said.

He said institutions that use aquaponics will be able to reduce costs associated with food transportation, and farmers won’t have to purchase pesticides and fertilizers.

The fish have a diet of red wiggler worms that come from UM Dining’s compost. The nine fish that are responsible for providing the plants with nutrients are perch that were caught in the Frenchtown Pond. Pernell is hoping to have 20 fish soon.

“I obtained a permit from the state to do a wild capture, and so these are literally local fish,” Pernell said.

Rebecca Wade, director of health, nutrition and sustainability, said aquaponics is happening at other schools, but it’s often being hosted by a science department.

“We’re definitely the only dining department doing aquaponics on this scale,” she said.

The combination of the type of irrigation being used, the LED lights, the vertical growing towers as well as the type of fish are unique to UM. 

Wade said UM Dining isn’t using the aquaponics experiment or any other food they grow at UM as a way to make a profit.

“The prime value in that food is in its educational value, and not in its monetary value,” Wade said. 

UM Dining is able to produce their own food, while also using the system as a hands-on learning tool for students.

Hegman said she has several interns monitoring the system daily, and she hopes to continue to include more students in the process.

If the experiment is successful, UM Dining hopes to expand the program. While there are only eight growing towers being used right now, UM Dining could use as many as 17 towers.

“If this works out we definitely want to keep investing in it and keep growing as we learn,” Hegman said.