Texas A&M Urban Tower Farm Breathes Life into Local Community and Creates Sustainable Future

Twenty-four thriving Tower Garden units stand tall on the campus of Texas A&M University. While many would consider this an unlikely area to grow produce due to the Texas heat, this location boasts a fruitful urban farm that’s growing vegetables and herbs to combat food insecurity and provide students and faculty with access to fresh food. And so far, it’s been successful at doing just that!

In the summer of 2019, Lisette Templin, instructional assistant at Texas A&M in the department of health and kinesiology, and Broch Saxton, plant and environmental soil science student, received the Aggie Green Fund grant - a university grant that advocates for sustainable projects. The grant allowed for Templin and Saxton to purchase Tower Garden units to introduce vertical farming to the campus and local community. With it, they formed the university’s first-of-its-kind urban farm, TAMU Urban Farm United.

Templin, who has learned a thing or two about Tower Garden from having both indoor and outdoor units at home, shares her story below about exactly how an urban farm was launched in College Station, Texas.

Q. What led you to formally start an urban farm on campus with the department of soil and crop sciences?

Templin: I had my Tower Garden for six years at home, and I knew it was going to perform. What I thought the Tower Garden offered was an implementation of food growing immediately that serves the local solution of food insecurity and nutrient deficiency as well as sustainability - and Texas A&M is all about new inventions for a very large-scale world population. 

Q. How’s that going??

Templin: The students love it. After a busy day of tests, they come to the greenhouse and just melt. Before COVID-19, we had around 400 people at our open house. We also took our Towers onto campus for fairs in the biology department, along with physics and chemistry. 

Q. Speaking of COVID-19, how has the pandemic impacted the farm and upcoming school year?

Templin: We had four major events we were planning for the month of April, and we had to cancel them. My students left. I thought all of my plants were going to die. But they kept growing. Nothing happened. And we were still able to deliver food to the 12th Can Food Pantry in April, May, June and July. We harvested around 200 pounds of tomatoes. It was phenomenal. There were just two of us managing 24 Towers, and it was doable. 

Q. What all did you learn during that time?

Templin: We learned a cycle of things. The farm was very capable of handling intense emergency situations around food deserts. The produce aisles at HEB were bare - there was no more food because of the trucking industry. Everything was interrupted in March and April. I’m sitting here looking at my Towers and I don’t even know how to farm and I’m thinking, “I’m growing food.” Once I calmed my own panic, I realized that the Towers are performing at their highest despite human trauma. 

Q. What are you currently growing on your 24 Towers?

Templin: We are ending our summer crops. We grew tons of tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, zucchini and chard. Those were our warm weather crops. We are getting ready to be done with our summer planting and go into our fall planting: lettuce, spinach, kale, all of our greens and spaghetti squash.

Q. What are your biggest takeaways you’ve learned from vertical farming by starting your campus farm?

Templin: The ease of growing has been absolutely phenomenal in exploring the potential that anyone can do this and they must do it. My volunteer community has been indispensable for me. Since I didn’t have my students this summer, I begged the community to come. I didn’t have to beg hard. People love joining the space of happiness. 

It’s also given my soil and crop students a vision that they can become entrepreneurs without becoming an employee first. It’s given them leadership training.

Q. What does the upcoming school year look like for TAMU Urban Farm?

Templin: Our grant will run out. Our goal is to be self-sustaining. How do we maintain our greenhouse so we can actually still give away food, but create an income for ourselves? 

Stephen, lead director of operations, from the soil and crops department, is creating a recognized TAMU Urban Farm United club on campus, and we have 11 students signed up for that. We are going to start selling seedlings to local people. In the spring we are going to open what we call the TAMU Market. In the market we will sell seedlings, vegan pesto and a tomato basil soup. That’s what we will start with in the spring to sell to the community to keep our garden sustainable. We probably will ask for a small grant that will allow us to get two more Towers. 

Q. Any last words you’d like to share with our Tower Garden audience?

Templin: My vision. To create on-the-job urban farm training for veterans with PTSD, and for people who have been rescued from sex trafficking. It’s a therapeutic space for people to begin healing. I don’t want a greenhouse to be just a greenhouse, it’s a meditative, healing space. Designing a greenhouse in such a way so that people can have meditation sections and just meditate with the plants. 

We want to thank Lisette for sharing her story and for advocating for a more sustainable future starting at Texas A&M! Have a story you’d like to share? Reach out to us via our official Facebook page. Happy growing!

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