Students nurture growing business

After competing in the Proving Ground competition last semester, three University of South Carolina students are turning their business pitch into a reality — and they’re starting with your salad.

John Stewart, Erin Ryan and Bri Matthews are introducing fresh, local lettuce to the Columbia campus dining with an agricultural method called hydroponics.

Hydroponics, or the process of growing plants with nutrient-dense water instead of soil, is simpler than it seems. Seeds are placed inside sponge-like cubes and “planted” in tubes. Water then runs through the tubes and delivers nutrients the way wet soil would. The environmentally friendly hydroponics system recirculates the water, reducing the cost of operations.

“The hydroponics system provides many benefits for the university,” says hydroponics manager John Stewart. “It requires less manual labor than conventional farming, less space and less land. It is easier to control the supply of nutrients through water than through soil, resulting in higher quality produce. And since hydroponics systems are set up indoors, the crops survive despite the climate and can be grown year-round.”

Grown from organic seed, the first harvest of 120 heads of hydroponic lettuce was delivered to Sodexo on Jan. 29 and served that weekend in Top of Carolina.

Students are growing the produce in the Carolina Community Farm and Gardens, located in the greenhouse behind Green Quad. The garden operates on permaculture principles, which is a set of practices that encourage self-sustained growth of food.

“The Sustainable Carolina hydroponics system is completely student-built and student-run,” says Namita Koppa, assistant director of program management for the Office of Sustainability. “Students provide the work, the initiative and the ideas. Our office provides guidance and seed funding.”

Soon, the Carolina Community Farm and Gardens will be financially independent. Coming in second place in the Proving Ground competition last November provided the hydroponics initiative team with $2,500 to put towards their research. The farm is expected to generate $20,000 annually.

“Personally, it was a great way for me to give back to the Carolina community, as it has given me so much,” says Stewart. “But I’m only getting the ball rolling. It is our goal to take the business to the next level and supply the entire campus with fresh, local produce that is grown by students.”

The Sustainable Carolina Farm and Garden Hydroponics Business seeks to provide locally and organically grown produce to student dining services and local restaurants.

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