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Changing the world

Most of you who drive on Shoup Road at night east of Highway 83 have noticed the purple glow of a greenhouse to the south just as you enter the trees. What you are seeing are the germination lights that are encouraging thousands of tiny lettuce plants to grow fast. DISCLAIMER! There are no marijuana plants growing in this greenhouse!The greenhouse belongs to Youth with a Mission (YWAM) and is part of a worldwide network of YWAM groups (called campuses) that are working to serve and help disadvantaged people, provide food for hungry people here and overseas and share Godís love with them. This campus is called Emerge, and its goal is to train and equip people to take a unique lettuce technology called aquaponics around the world. The technology uses fish waste in water to fertilize lettuce plants.Aquaponics differs from hydroponics in that hydroponics grows vegetables in water fertilized by commercial fertilizer and uses a lot more water. Aquaponics is especially efficient to provide fresh vegetables for people in arid and poor countries while giving them jobs running the greenhouses and distributing fresh produce to the local populace. YWAM greenhouses are currently operating in South Africa, Costa Rica, Central Asia and several other countries with many more planned. This campus trains people to build and operate these greenhouses and then sends them out to make it happen in other countries.The process starts with three large tanks containing about 500 tilapia fish. The fish waste is ammonia that is converted to nitrogen for the lettuce plants, which are floating on styrofoam rafts. The water is circulated back to the fish tank every hour and by the time it gets there it is quite clean and ready for the next cycle. The fish produce less waste as they grow older so at the 8 to 12 month point they are replaced with a new batch. The staff enjoys a lot of fish dinners after that point and some fish-fry events for others take place as well.The previous greenhouse operators grew tomatoes, but they were not able to make a go of it so YWAM purchased the property and began working on it in 2018 after operating a smaller greenhouse on Woodmen Road. The original greenhouse in Black Forest was controversial in the beginning because the original owners had permission to build a second greenhouse as well as a processing building on the site, making it a huge operation. The Emerge folks are only using three of the five bays of the existing greenhouse, with no need to build more. A number of the volunteers and trainees live on site so they are able to immerse themselves in the process and be ready to go out on their own overseas.Every week, volunteers plant about 3,200 lettuce plants that germinate under the UV lights. As they grow, they are transferred to larger floating rafts. Lettuce plants mature after eight weeks in the summer and 10 weeks in the winter. The varieties are green and red romaine, red oak leaf, flandria (also called butterhead or bibb lettuce) and bok choy. The lettuce is organic, with no pesticides or artificial fertilizer. Friday is harvest day, and a group of volunteers gather to harvest about 2,000 heads of lettuce, with another 1,200 harvested on Tuesdays. I know all about this because I have been helping with the lettuce harvest for about two years. The volunteers also move the small plants to larger rafts as they outgrow the small germination beds.The lettuce goes to many places. Emerge supplies lettuce to local colleges as well as a number of restaurants in the city. They also donate lettuce to a half-dozen food banks in the area. Being a nonprofit, their goal is to sell enough lettuce to pay the bills and fulfill their main goal of training people to take the technology (called the OASYS system) to other countries. They are happy to accept donations to help with the bills. You can learn more about them at If you wish to buy lettuce, you can go to and sign up for a variety of sizes and types of lettuce that you can pick up on Fridays.The Emerge folks are always interested in more volunteers to help with the harvest. If you wish to join us, come to the greenhouse at 8:45 a.m. on Friday; and, after a short safety briefing, you can join the crew (visit the website for the address). Your pay will be the assurance that you have helped feed needy people in Colorado Springs and around the world, and you also get to take a sack of fresh, organic lettuce home with you.

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