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Rooftop garden competitors give final proposals

Ian Green

A student team showcases their rooftop garden design before a panel for final judgment on April 20 in SUMC’s Gallagher Theater. The competition’s winners will have their design efforts- which range from project financing to soil composition- brought to life, as well as earn meal plan-dollars.

The Gallagher Theater hosted the finalists of the Student Union Rooftop Garden Competition on Thursday, April 20, as teams presented their final presentations.

Teams were given 15 minutes to present the entirety of their garden followed by a 5-minute question and answer with the judging panel.

The final six teams came from an original lineup of 24 groups of five students representing a range of departments and schools around UA. Students from agricultural sciences, engineering, business and design all brought their perspectives and expertise to the planning of the Student Union Memorial Center (SUMC) rooftop garden.

At the beginning of the semester, SUMC administration created a competition for students at UA to team up and design an all-inclusive development and production plan for a garden built on space allocated by the Student Union. Competitors were free to get creative as they liked as long at the garden produced food for the Campus Pantry and union restaurants.

Decisions had to be made about every aspect of the garden including labor scheduling, harvest planning and nutritional analysis. Each group brought different perspectives the choices in front of them.

RELATED: Student teams pitch plans for Rooftop Garden Competition

When it came to choosing a growing technique, teams had limited options. The two prominent choices were a soil-based garden or a hydroponic garden. The latter relies on a nutrient rich irrigation system passing through the roots at all times. 

However, one team included a method of gardening that judges didn’t expect to see. Team 2, made up of Chetan Bafna, Alex Garcia-Ramirez, Maria Marzano and NaRayah Runyon, designed a “fogponics” greenhouse. Fogponics takes advantage of a soilless system like hydroponics, but by exposing crop roots to a nutrient rich fog, gardeners will be able to use 70 percent less water than the already low-water hydroponics approach. 

“Fogponics is relatively new,” said Garcia-Ramirez, a senior studying biosystems engineering, mathematics and mechanical engineering. “We would be conducting research in this garden”.

One aspect of the garden that saw many different approaches was labor scheduling. 

Teams were told to design the garden with a budget of $50,000, including the first year’s labor and maintenance cost. While most teams chose to create two or three student part-time positions lead by a gardening expert, Team 13 proposed a different solution. 

Team 13 was made up of members from UA’s Students for Sustainability (SFS) organization. They described their labor plan as “Student led, student fed,” conscripting volunteers from SFS and other environmentally-conscious organizations.

RELATED: Rooftop garden competition highlights the future of food production

Growing properly nutritious food was also a focus. 

“People between the ages of 19 and 30 aren’t getting half of what they need,” said Catalina Fernandez-Moores, a junior studying biosystems engineering and mechanical engineering and a member of Team 7.

The main goal for the Rooftop Garden Competition is to help alleviate food insecurity on campus. However, it also presents a great opportunity for students to better educate themselves about where their food comes from.

“This project is what I call phase two of the Campus Pantry initiative, that is the soil and roots of where the idea came from,” said Todd Millay, director of the Student Unions.

In fact, incorporating public education was the subject of many questions posed by the judges for the competitors. 

“Our overall goal is to beautify and educate the campus,” said Nicholas Tritz, a junior studying civil engineering. Tritz and the rest of Team 3 made education an integral part of their presentation.

Education is what it all comes back to in university initiatives, and the Rooftop Garden Competition is no exception. In January, Millay and the Office of Student Engagement had hopes for the opportunities that could come from a simple utilization of space.

“The thought was ‘Can we get students engaged in this, really blow it up, make it a big deal so that students can be participating in growing food for their fellow students,” Millay said.  

Now, four months later, dozens of students have dedicated their time and energy to seeing this competition out to its full potential. 

“We’ve learned more in this competition than we ever did in any class,” said Joseph Lewandowski, a senior studying mathematics and Spanish.

To get a look at what the Rooftop Garden will look like in the fall, come to the final ceremony in the SUMC 4th floor terrace on Thursday, April 27th from 5-7:00 pm. First, second, and third place winners will be announced. This event will mark the beginning of the next phase of this initiative, that will eventually become a permanent garden at the SUMC.

Follow Chandler Donald on Twitter.

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