The EcoComplexis proud to introduce Andrew DiOrio as the Summer 2016 Agricultural Entrepreneur Intern in conjunction with Dr. Albert Ayeni of the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. Over a nine week period, Andrew has been engaged in a dual research and entrepreneurial venture growing Amaranth, a plant that is popular among several ethnic groups; one strain from The Caribbean and one from Africa. Andrew is comparing the water and energy consumption of those grown hydroponically at the greenhouse with others being grown outdoors at the Rutgers Horticulture Farm 3. He has packaged the amaranth and sold it at local farmer’s markets across the state. Using the state-of-the-art equipment and practices provided at the EcoComplex Greenhouse, Andrew has utilized a sustainable hydroponic system to grow the amaranth within the EcoComplex’s 46,000 square foot greenhouse facility. The greenhouse showcases state-of-the-art technology and is run almost entirely on the alternative energy produced from their boiler — turning landfill gas into clean energy and reducing its environmental impact
Amaranth is a plant of many different applications and backgrounds. Used in cuisines as diverse as Indian, African, Latin American, Caribbean and even cuisines dating as far back as the ancient Aztecs! It’s not surprising that a plant that has been cultivated for such a long time has a list of benefits almost as long. Consuming amaranth leaves has been associated with a host of nutritional benefits including; reducing bad cholesterol, improving digestion, blood pressure and eyesight as well as promoting energy within the body due to its high levels of carbohydrates, protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins K, A, C and B6. In addition to these ancillary benefits, the presence of lysine (an essential amino acid) and high levels of iron, magnesium and potassium help your body fight the formation of malignant cells that lead to cancer. With such an impressive list of benefits, it’s no wonder that, in addition to being used as a food crop, amaranth has historically been used in many herbal remedies and medications in both African and Chinese cultures.
The two varieties that are being grown are the Caribbean, which is known for its striking red and purple (and occasionally green!) colors as well as its beautiful and large broad-head arrow shaped leaves. It is also the taller of the two varieties, after 5 weeks of growth, some were measured at 104 cm or over a meter tall! The other type hails from Africa, this type is slightly shorter and produces a much higher yield of leaves than the Caribbean type. The leaves are long, narrow, and spear shaped, they have a milder taste than the Caribbean as well. They also tend to flower much faster, with some plants budding at as early as 4 weeks, whereas the Caribbean was never observed to bud in its six week growing period.
Hydroponics is a way of growing plants, fruits and vegetables without soil. The system provides the plants with nutrients directly through the irrigation water — which contains all the nutrients that the plant needs to grow strong and healthy. With hydroponics, plants more easily absorb the nutrients and water they need while sustainably addressing the issue of diminishing arable land for agriculture. The water used is then recycled back into the holding tank to be used again, making the process much more water efficient. The plants are irrigated 1-3 times per day, giving them nutrients and water every with every irrigation cycle, which helps to speed up their growing rate. With plants grown in the field, the root system needs to navigate through the soil in order to find water, nutrients and physical support. The plant uses energy to do this which competes for energy that would otherwise be used for vegetative growth. Because of this, plants grown hydroponically see a significant increase in their growth rate over soil grown plants. To provide support, plants in a hydroponic system are traditionally rooted in an inert media. This inert media comes in many forms but most typically is a mixture of rock and other inorganic material that does not hold nutrients in the same way that soil does. The media provides support for the root system so that they can absorb the nutrients from the hydroponic solution passing through the system. Providing only structural support to the plants and its root system, the media allows the roots to easily access the nutrient rich water, thus achieving the efficiency championed in hydroponics.
The system used to grow our amaranth crop is known as an ebb and flood design wherein the plants are grown in an inert media on watertight benches that are periodically flooded with the nutrient rich water then allowed to drain back to the holding tank. The media used in this venture is a mixture of vermiculite/perlite to improve drainage and aeration. All products used in the media are 100% OMRI approved for organic crop production.
Finally, hydroponic greenhouse production can be conducted year-round. It is not impacted as much by weather because the greenhouse is equipped with high pressure sodium lights to supplement natural daylight and it helps to regulate the temperature.
Andrew DiOrio is a senior at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences studying Environmental & Business Economics on the New Brunswick campus. Marketing and Economics are his fields of interest, but he is always interested in learning about other fields. Learning about food production, hydroponics, and agricultural marketing has encouraged Andrew to seek employment in areas where he would have not thought to apply in.
“I am thankful for the unique opportunity to expand my understanding of agricultural and business practices through my adventures growing and selling Amaranth. It has helped me appreciate the need for sustainable food production to meet the increasing demand in the future. Being mentored By David Specca and Dr. Serpil Guran has been an incredible experience, learning how energy, food, and water are intertwined has made me want to learn how we can make food and energy production more efficient”. - Andrew DiOrio