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Woman stands among plants.
Photo Courtesy: Susan MacGregor
Susan MacGregor is spending the winter at the South Pole Station overseeing the growth chamber, which grows the only fresh fruit and vegetables available to the research station residents for the eight months of isolation.

Cropping up

MacGregor returns to the Ice to work in the South Pole growth chamber

It is a blustery winter morning at South Pole Station External U.S. government site with minus 70-Fahrenheit temperature, a wind chill of minus 120 and 20-knot winds kicking up the icy snow drifts that build and move, constantly shifting like dunes across the polar plateau. Most people would not wake up during a winter-over contract at Pole mentally designing hanging strawberry racks as they prepare to enjoy one of the rare two-day weekends off that come at the first of each month.

But I don’t have your typical South Pole winter-over job as operator of the South Pole Food Growth Chamber (SPFGC) External Non-U.S. government site. My job takes me daily into an environment of bright lights, high humidity and delightful warmth. Working with a supervisor at the University of Arizona External Non-U.S. government site, I plant seedlings twice a week, track growth rates and harvest amounts, keeping careful notes about each crop’s susceptibility to disease, popularity among station mates, and ability to thrive in the SPFGC.

People carry plastic bags of produce.
Photo Credit: Susan MacGregor
Polies carry part of a harvest from the growth chamber.

Commercial food growth chambers (a.k.a., greenhouses) are optimized to favor the growth of one particular crop. But the SPFGC — built by the National Science Foundation External U.S. government site and developed under a NASA External U.S. government site grant — instead provides a large variety of crops by using a generalized mix of nutrients, humidity, temperature and light.

Leaf crops such as open-leafed lettuces, Asian greens, kale, chard, spinach and herbs thrive in the chamber. Cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, strawberries, and melon vines also compete for space within the chamber.

The chamber is semi-automated, computer-controlled, and designed to be self-contained. So far this winter, it has produced 375 pounds of produce or a little more than a half-pound per person per week. Besides the obvious health benefits from being able to consume fresh produce, Polies relish visiting the growth chamber to enjoy the sight, scent and texture of green things growing in their midst.

Back to my perplexing preoccupation with hanging strawberry trays.  Strawberries are one of the most coveted crops at Pole.

Tracked vehicle heads toward building.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The South Pole Station during the bright and relatively warm summer.

Unfortunately, strawberries are also one of the crops not suited to the one-size-fits-all nutrient and environmental controls offered by the chamber. I’ve tried different strategies to keep the berry plants healthy and happy, including elevating them in trays above the rest of the growth chamber crops to increase exposure to light and allow runners room to roam. However, limited water pressure is limiting success.

I’ll keep pondering the problem and trying new strategies, as I’m not one to give up easily. I hope to have a bowl full of strawberries and yogurt for my 62nd birthday breakfast this month.

A 60-something Ph.D. chemist with a life-long love of gardening may seem an odd profile for a winter-over Polie. But operating the SPFGC provides a perfect way for me to spend a marvelous winter at South Pole Station, enjoying auroras and breathtakingly clear, cold, star-filled skies, while keeping my station mates happy with a constant supply of the freshest fruits and vegetables that loving care and semi-automated hydroponics can grow.

Susan MacGregor, at 62, is the second oldest woman to winter at the South Pole. She is the winter-over operator for the South Pole Food Growth Chamber.

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