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Growing Strawberries in the Desert

Resilient Societies

Environmental Stewardship

Of Texas’ 258 counties, 58 are food deserts, meaning that they have no large grocery stores and no access to fresh produce.

Most produce available to Texas consumers is shipped from California, Florida or internationally.

professor lecturing students in greenhouse

This poses a problem for consumers who prefer food that is grown locally, organically and with a minimal carbon footprint. Dr. Nicole Wagner, assistant professor in Texas State University’s Department of Agricultural Sciences, is leading a team of enthusiastic students who want to help Texas agriculture adapt to meet this demand. 

Wagner says, “My students are interested in the foods we eat every day. They’re interested in a sustainable local food economy, from the ecological perspective to the plant science perspective to the economic perspective to the social fabric perspective.” Despite the growing interest in sustainable fruit and vegetable farming among young people, Wagner says, she shares the USDA’s concern that “currently the average age of farmers in this country is close to 60 and rising.”

The next generation of farmers face enormous barriers to entry like startup and labor costs. Inheriting a farm is one of the few pathways into an economy dominated by multimillion-dollar commodity farms. Adding to this challenge is the fact that, strategically speaking, small Texas farms should locate near the large consumer populations and fertile soil found around cities, but city-proximate land is prohibitively expensive. Therefore, Wagner focuses on “alternative models of farming that may be economically feasible for people who don’t have the interest or ability to grow corn or cotton, and don’t need thousands of acres for cattle.” 

$1 million: USDA four-year grant

hydroponic setup displaying soilless farming

Wagner’s research aims to create new pathways for future farmers by investigating the feasibility of year-round soilless farming in a controlled environment. Otherwise known as hydroponics, soilless farming is an ancient technology that was used in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and by the Aztecs. Hydroponics may sound water- and energy-intensive, but Wagner explains that according to current research “soilless farming uses up to 90 percent less water than field-based farming by reducing evapotranspiration from the soil,” and because hydroponic farms can be located closer to consumers they avoid the massive energy expenditures involved in shipping produce cross-country.

Other potential advantages of local hydroponics include the reduction or elimination of problems related to drought, seasonality and pesticide use, as well as improved flavor (as compared to produce bred to be resilient to shipping). Moreover, because indoor farms are compact and don’t require arable land, they can be installed in Texas deserts as well as city spaces like abandoned parking lots, dilapidated warehouses or even contaminated land such as superfund sites, helping to revitalize blighted neighborhoods.

90-95%: reduction in water use for hydroponic crops compared to soil-based crops

hydroponic grown strawberries

Wagner has already worked with nearly 30 students on soilless farming projects, developing a diverse array of papers for publication. One student’s research evaluates the use of beneficial microorganisms and a new technology for aeration (using electrolysis to break water molecules into nano-bubbles) to reduce plant disease without synthetic pesticides and promote nutritional uptake to increase yields. Another student’s research investigates the flavor differences between locally grown hydroponic strawberries and imported strawberries, as well as consumer willingness to pay a premium for produce grown locally. Another project compares the effects of synthetic fertilizer to vermicompost tea (a microbial rich input produced by redworms) in soilless systems.

These projects, and others, are supported by a four-year, $1 million USDA EverGreen grant to increase diversity in STEM education, as well as the College of Applied Arts Learning Communities Grant Program. Under the direction of Wagner and Dr. Bahram Asiabanpour, professor of engineering and principal investigator of the EverGreen grant, students are collaborating to convert refrigerated shipping containers (located at Texas State’s Freeman Center) into indoor farms to house future hydroponics research.

Wagner says, “The students are doing research and building the shipping container farm while learning science, math and engineering through hands-on tasks. The teams of engineering students, agriculture students and business students focus on their areas of interest and then come together to share their work.”

Asiabanpour and Wagner have already exceeded the grant’s goals for representation of female and minority STEM students, and the students are producing publishable results. Many have won undergraduate research fellowships or have been recognized for their posters and presentations at conferences, at Texas State and nationally.

Wagner says the grant empowers students by allocating the bulk of the funds directly to students in the form of scholarships and funding for their projects. Wagner says, “I wish I had a clone, because there are so many students who are passionate about this subject.” With or without a clone, thanks in part to the research of Wagner and her students, someday soon you may see strawberries at H-E-B proudly labeled “Locally Grown in Central Texas.”

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