Cincinnati Zoo builds hydroponics farm in shipping containers

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is taking its seemingly all-encompassing green efforts to yet another level by introducing an on-site hydroponic system capable of growing hundreds of produce every week.

To do so, the zoo converted a pair of shipping containers into an indoor mini-farm on its Avondale property. The system uses vertical growing methods for the cultivation of romaine lettuce and kale. 

Beyond creating fresh, readily available food for zoo animals, the set up also has a number of environmental benefits, including reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with traditional farming methods such as crop cultivation and manure management.

The new hydroponic farming system uses nutrient-rich water instead of soil to grow plants, so fertilizer and pesticides aren’t necessary.

“This farm-to-stable set up maximizes freshness and eliminates carbon emissions generated by transporting food long distances,” said Mark Fisher, Cincinnati Zoo’s vice president of facilities and sustainability.

The system allows for the 1,170 heads of romaine lettuce and 1,020 kale stalks each week. That’s 415 pounds of total food. But that could expand in the future.

“Right now, we’re growing romaine lettuce to supplement the zoo’s giraffe feed program and kale for the manatees,” said Fisher. “Surplus produce may be distributed to other animals.”

Inside one of two shipping container mini-farms

The Cincinnati Zoo also grows food for animal diets at its farm in Warren County – Bowyer Farm. Over the past few years, all its hay needs have been met by those harvests. Through its Feed the Zoo program, the organization also encourages donations of certain types of approved foods. Pick up and food delivery of those items typically happens the same day.

‘Greenest zoo in America’

These food efforts are part of the zoo’s longstanding goal of achieving full net zero status in terms of water, energy and waste, Fisher said. 

Net zero refers to a situation where a building, company or organization finds an equilibrium between the amount of greenhouse gas it produces and the amount it removes from the atmosphere.

Over the years, the Cincinnati Zoo has saved billions of gallons of water because of its on-site stormwater management program. The organization has also prioritized green construction by building all new facilities and habits to LEED Platinum standards.

In February, the zoo announced plans to expand its considerable solar efforts by constructing its biggest solar array to date.

For its efforts, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland dubbed the Cincinnati Zoo the “Greenest Zoo in America.”

“These sustainable farming initiatives will help us achieve that and, we hope, will inspire others to do the same,” Fisher said.

Cincinnati Zoo green efforts

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