Centre puts green principles to the test as students engage with Freight Farm, hydropower facility

by Matt Overing

Centre College students RiLee Waggoner (left, class of 2024), Macey Dukes (center, class of 2024) and Abby Brainard (right, class of 2025) view the lettuce planted at the freight farm.

Students at Centre College are receiving hands-on experience in environmental studies at an unlikely location.

An innocuous shipping container behind the Alumni House has turned into a passion project for Centre College’s Environmental Studies program.

The “Freight Farm” is exactly what it sounds like: A farm inside of a shipping container that looks like it should be on the back of an 18-wheeler barreling down the highway. Take one step inside and you’ll see something completely different. 

Plants in the Freight Farm grow vertically in towers which line the inside of the container. The container holds 150 towers, and water is filtered from the top and bottom of each tower. Water is recycled and re-used, with students monitoring the nutrients content. Plants grow free of pesticides and year-round — this harvest of lettuce will be fully mature in December. 

“I grew up on a farm, this has always been a passion of mine,” said Macey Dukes, class of 2024. Dukes’ senior project will be related to the Freight Farm. “This is such an innovative away to farm, I think it’ll be essential in future years with climate change.”

Dukes leads a team of four students — Abby Brainard (class of 2025), RiLee Waggoner (2024) and Roxana Popa (2024), while Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Jean Faye also assists.

Each student has a different story as to how they got involved — but they were all intrigued by the name alone. 

“I take a class with Dr. Faye and he asked us if anyone would be willing to help out on the Freight Farm, and I thought 'What in god's name is that?' Brainard said. “He took me to see it and I thought it was so cool, they grew flowers and I thought — imagine all the cool things you can do with this.”

Brainard is an Environmental Studies major and hopes to be an environmental engineer with a focus on sustainability. 

“Agriculture was always interesting for me but I never really considered it as something I would find myself doing,” she said. “Since doing this, it has merged how I take my classes. I take chemistry classes and I get to blend my love for that with my love for helping the planet. This has been a culmination of what I've been studying.”

The Freight Farm was gifted to Centre thanks to a generous donor, and the plan is for students to be the primary caretakers of the facility. Right now, the students cultivate lettuce and sell it to Parkhurst Dining on campus — a great way to sustainably source the food students eat, Dukes said. They plan to expand to more vegetables in the future.

Waggoner said the Freight Farm is a real-world application of what he learns in class. He plans on pursuing a career in sports turf management — think golf courses, baseball diamonds or football fields — after graduation.

“I’m working with chemicals, learning to control the electrical conductivity or the EC of the water,” he said. “And the pH of the water is super important. There's very minimal soil, so a lot of the plant's nutrients come from the pH of the water and what we put in.”

Dukes said she planned on a medical career when she first came to Centre — but didn’t want to walk the pre-med path to get there.

“I've been doing a lot of exploration with my courses, this is how I stumbled upon environmental studies — I fell in love with it, I feel like I'm making a difference,” she said. 


Centre College faculty, staff and students toured the Mother Ann Lee Hydropower Plant in October 2023.


The Freight Farm is just one piece of Centre’s commitment to sustainability. Aside from Centre being the only college in Kentucky to have four LEED-certified buildings including two at the Gold level, the College also has sixty-panel photovoltaic array that has a total rated capacity of 19.8 kW and produces 24,000 kWh per year. 

Recently, the College’s Environmental Sciences program organized a tour of the Mother Ann Lee Hydropower Plant located at Lock 7 on the Kentucky River in Shakertown. Centre purchases credits each month from the plant, which is one of a handful that received a “low impact” certification from the Low Impact Hydro Institute. Faculty, staff and students attended the tour. See more photos on Facebook!

Photo above by Ben Smith, class of 2025