Gary Pan, left, with Argus, and farm manager Alex Macmillan go over the computerized heating, ventilation and lighting system in the Village Center dining
Gary Pan, left, with Argus, and farm manager Alex Macmillan go over the computerized heating, ventilation and lighting system in the Village Center dining hall's greenhouse garden on Friday in Williams Village on the University of Colorado's Boulder campus. (Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)

Amid a sea of white towers where leafy greens will soon be sprouting, Alex Macmillan adjusts his name tag, boasting an unusual title for a University of Colorado employee: farm manager.

Macmillan, who has a degree in horticulture and a background in organic farming, is in charge of a newfangled greenhouse underway in the Williams Village Village Center dining hall.

The facility is not your typical growing operation.

The space takes advantage of vertical, aeroponic growing, meaning instead of planting seeds in soil, the greens will be placed in slots cut out of 140 towers equipped with a watering system that travels from the base of the tower through a tube in the middle. Each tower can produce around 44 plants.

This style of greenhouse produces greater yields on average and allows for better space usage, Macmillan said.

"The sky's the limit," he said, gazing up at the soon-to-be-seeded tower. "Well, the ceiling."

The greens produced will go straight from the towers to a washing station a few feet away, then a couple steps farther to a salad bar in the dining hall, where hungry students can get their veggie intake.

As of now, the greenhouse is strictly growing various salad greens, but the future of its food output will be dictated by student demand, Macmillan said.

For now, the food will only be used in the Village Center dining hall, he said, because the demand for leafy greens elsewhere might prove too much at first.


At the Center for Community's dining hall on CU's main campus, they eat through 28 cases of romaine lettuce a day.

"Our students are eating their salad," said Katie Theiler, director of marketing and communications for CU's Housing and Dining Services.

Students will also get the chance to become more than consumers, with future opportunities to help out with the greenhouse operation — and an advanced operation it is.

The greenhouse has a slew of high-tech features that control for optimal sunlight, shade, temperature and humidity.

Real-time data tracks all the information, updating as often as every couple of seconds, so Macmillan and his crew know what's working, what's not and what can be improved.

"It can be categorized as a smart greenhouse," he said.

Sensors hanging throughout the space keep track of conditions, preventing fans, lights and other equipment from running when they aren't needed.

Construction on the facility kicked off in September as part of phase two in the Village Center's design.

Macmillan hopes the operation will be completely up and running by February.

The greenhouse crew expects calls from drivers along U.S. 36, who they said will be able to spot the facility's bright LED lights from the highway and wonder, "What is that thing?"

Peering out from the space's roughly 3,000-square-foot facility, Macmillan scoped out the Flatirons in the distance.

"I've never seen a greenhouse with such pretty views of the mountains," he said.

Elizabeth Hernandez: 303-473-1106,