Writer: Beth Ann Luedeker

Experiential learning enhances a student’s college experience and is a required part of the curriculum for undergraduates in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. The department offers internships and study abroad opportunities to help students meet this requirement. Broch Saxton, one of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences December graduates, created his own internship as a student leader and greenhouse project director with TAMU Urban Farm United (TUFU).

tower garden with seedlings
Seedlings are planted in the towers where they will remain until they reach maturity and are harvested. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Beth Ann Luedeker)

TUFU is an urban farm that utilizes vertical towers -- Tower Garden -- that produce high value/specialty crops in a space-conscious technique via hydroponic growing methods. The project started by Broch is housed in a greenhouse on the Texas A&M campus. It currently includes twenty-four towers on which a variety of produce was grown, and plenty of room to expand.

The urban farm project began as a collaboration between Saxton and Lisette Templin, an Instructional Assistant Professor from the Department of Health and Kinesiology.

“I have dreamed of running greenhouses in this form. Using the knowledge obtained from my degree, I want to help people have better access to greater food, all while engraining hydroponic farming into the university. My experience in this process has been completely driven by networking and passion. This, is what I want a career in,” said Saxton, who received his Bachelor’s degree in Plant and Environmental Soil Science Dec. 13.

"Hydroponics have huge potential to benefit many people," he said.

four people standing by tower garden
Dr. Lisette Templin, second from right, discusses the closed-loop water system with Dr. Jacqui Aitkenhead-Peterson (L), Broch Saxton and Dr. David Reed (R) from the Department of Horticulture. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Beth Ann Luedeker)

“When I approached the Texas A&M Office of Sustainability with my idea of a vertical farm project, they suggested I partner with Dr. Templin, who had approached them with a similar idea.”

Templin has a tower garden on her patio, which feeds her family of four. She and Saxton envisioned a project that could potentially feed Aggie students and staff on campus. They submitted an abstract to the Aggie Green Fund and in January 2019 received a $60,000 grant and permission to use space in a greenhouse owned by the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology.

With the grant funds, Saxton and Templin purchased towers and the closed-loop watering system that provides nutrition to the plants, as well as 800 seedlings from an urban farm in Austin to use for their initial crop. They will be self-sufficient and seed their own plants for future endeavors.

The first crop included four different types of lettuce, kale, snap peas, snow peas, herbs, chard, bok choi, tatsoi and celery. They plan to expand the project to include peppers in the next round.

The team manages each tower individually to ensure that the pH of the water is appropriate for the stage of growth, and that the nutritional requirements of each plant are met.

Since it is an internship, and Saxton received college credit for his time with TUFU, he needed an advisor in the department. He reached out to Dr. Jacqueline Aitkenhead-Peterson.

two students putting seedlings in towers
David Hendrix, a biochemistry major, and Madison Mau, majoring in biomedical science, get hands-on experience through internships in the tower gardens. (Texas A&M AgriLife

“I had taken courses under Dr. Peterson and was impressed by her value as a teacher and her approach to education,” Saxton said. “She has the mentality of mentorship and guidance that I was looking for.”

Aitkenhead-Peterson was happy to serve as Saxton’s advisor for the project.

“The fact that this project was not research based was very unusual to me” she said. “However, this project is about feeding people and educating people on the possibilities of feeding themselves which I deemed to be a very important exercise.”

Produce harvested by TUFU was distributed by the 12th Can Food Pantry, a student-run program on the Texas A&M campus which serves all students, faculty and staff in need of assistance.

TUFU looks forward to continuing to support the 12th Can and hopes to expand to support student dining.