By: Ava Ubaydi (Loyola Junior)
We all need food to survive. This is a simple fact that governs the way civilization has functioned since the first agricultural revolution in Mesopotamia. However, with this summer’s record hot and dry growing seasons, the ability of farmers to sustainably produce consistent yields and quality crops has been affected across the globe. Food insecurity has been an ongoing battle in Chicago, and will only worsen if action is not taken to restructure our farming practices in the wake of our changing climate. Thankfully, Loyola, through its Urban Agriculture program, is looking ahead to remedy this issue before its effects are felt.
Loyola senior Bailey Uttich (22), is the Hydroponics System Manager in the Urban Ag program, and through her combination of majors and minors hopes to build community involvement and interest around environmental issues.
Uttich, an environmental studies major with minors in Spanish and studio art, comes from Dallas, and became passionate about sustainability after seeing a multitude of environmental protections rolled back following the inauguration of former president Trump.
After interning with the Urban Ag program, Utitich applied to be a team leader for the program where she currently works producing up to 25 pounds of fresh, hyperlocal, and sustainable lettuce for the Rogers Park/Edgewater community every week.
I sat down with Uttich in her plant filled apartment to talk about her experiences with the program and insights she could share into sustainable agriculture.
*Interview has been edited for length and clarity
RogersEdge Reporter: Can you explain what Hydroponics is and what the system entails?
Uttich: Hydroponics simply is soilless agriculture. There are a lot of different types of hydroponics but I mostly work with a NFT [Nutrient Film Technique] system. Essentially the plants grow in a medium and when the roots are long enough, we put them into shelves, so they touch the water that we add nutrients into. The nutrients that plants usually get from the soil are directly added into our big mixed tank of water that cycles through the system.The cool thing about hydroponics is that when all of the water goes through the system, it goes into a drain tank and then is brought back into the main mix tank, so it just cycles the water and is very water efficient. There are cons of high startup costs and then also the knowledge requirement of plumbing and electrical issues, but the system has very little inputs for how much it produces.
RER: Tell me about your involvement with the Urban Agriculture program. I know you didn’t choose to be the hydroponics team leader, but can you tell me why you were drawn to a leadership position in the first place?
Uttich: I started as an intern in the Urban Ag program last fall. My first rotation was Farmers Market, which was interesting, but just seeing right off the bat the community that was in Urban Ag I was like, this seems like something that I want to do. We get a lot of freedom to do things without specific instructions, granted with some critiques and insights, but I really liked the idea of leading and the social aspects of it. I was not expecting to get the hydroponics job, I was really nervous because I am not that environmental science person, I was like, “Oh no is this gonna be hard for me?” And it hasn’t been, there are other knowledge requirements that I have needed more than chemistry, like electrical, plumbing, and hands-on building the system, which I’ve come to like the most about the job.
RER: I know that from my very limited experience with hydro systems that there are a lot of factors that you have to account for in order for everything to run smoothly, and to ensure that you have a successful harvest. What really motivates you to get up every single day and tackle those obstacles?
Uttich: It is definitely the people in Urban Ag. I feel so lucky to be around all of those people, and it just blows my mind every time a new batch of interns come in. I genuinely just get so giddy because I’m like, How did I not know these people? These people are so cool. We have the same interests. It’s just really a great environment which has helped working there be way more enjoyable. It does get so stressful thinking about the future and climate anxiety, since I work in agriculture, which is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. The people have helped me a little bit with like, okay, so I know how to help aid in this issue, and others around me want to act too.
RER: Historically, access to fresh, locally produced food year round was not a possibility in Chicago’s climate and landscape. So as someone whose job it is to bridge that gap for residents in Rogers Park and reduce those food miles, where do you see yourself in the battle against food insecurity? How has this changed since becoming involved with the Urban Ag program?
Uttich: Now that I know about agriculture and the agriculture industry, which I previously had little knowledge in, it’s definitely changed. How I think about growing spaces, because with hydroponics you can grow vertically, which is usually the biggest issue when it comes to growing in urban areas. Since I have found an interest in building hydro systems, I think that it would be really cool to do something like that in a food insecure neighborhood. I also like advocating for urban farms for people on abandoned residential plots. I think that is really important because not only does it bring the community together, but it also allows people to have fresh healthy food.
RER: What has been your favorite part of your experience with the Urban Agriculture program, more specifically with the hydroponics system?
Uttich: I love teaching it. It’s really cool because I didn’t know anything about hydroponics when I was an intern, and most people don’t know what Hydroponics is. I think teaching is probably my favorite part of it, as well as the whole construction part and getting to see how it actually works. There are a lot of different techniques and methods that allow for a ton of different people to use hydroponics because they can do it depending on the space that they have, you can make your own hydro units with a plastic tub. It’s so important being able to grow your own food, which I haven’t been able to do before. The program leader, Kevin, has said it’s kind of like learning how to be a human. Not necessarily a modern human, but the skill sets of being a human to be able to grow your own food because we’ve definitely become disconnected from that. Hydroponics is the way to go, especially in urban areas. Globally we are probably going to have water wars, which is terrifying, and when I started hydro I assumed that it would be very wasteful of water but it’s actually very water conscious. That can be useful anywhere, like in countries where there is very little access to clean water and or irrigation. So being able to transition from outdoor agriculture to hydroponics growing is important and you can grow food faster because you have more control over the temperature of the space. I see a need for it everywhere.
RER: Where do you see yourself post graduation and how has this changed since you started your involvement and exposure to controlled environment agriculture?
Uttich: It has changed an insane amount from this time last year, I was like, “Oh maybe agriculture is cool, it’s kind of fun to get my hands dirty.” I’m considering going into education, through speakers and previous team leaders I heard about technical teaching licenses that allow you to teach at any state middle or high school in that subject. I want to try anything and everything to get more experience, I want to try working on an actual farm or find something that I could do with mushroom cultivation. I’ve even thought about cannabis cultivation because the majority of that is done through hydroponics.
For more information on hydroponics and Loyola’s Urban Agriculture program, please visit: https://www.luc.edu/sustainability/initiatives/urbanagriculture/