Ferrum College’s newly unveiled hydroponic greenhouse just completed its first growing cycle.
The facility was funded through a Tobacco Commission grant, with matching funds provided by Ferrum College. The goal of the grant program is to identify profitable, alternative revenue streams for farmers to transition out of tobacco. Off-season lettuce production has the potential to be very lucrative for farmers interested in supplying public schools and other organizations.
Now that the new hydroponic facility is in operation at the Titmus Agricultural Center, Ferrum College Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Agricultural Science Tim Durham will be providing educational programming to farmers in the immediate five county service area to demystify the technology to potential “converts”.
“It’s definitely unconventional. No soil is used. Instead, the facility uses nutrient film technique. As the name implies, a thin film of nutrient rich solution is trickled through channels resembling gutters,” explained Dr. Durham. “Lids on the tops of these channels have small spaces to seat plants. The roots dangle down, where they wick up their liquid feed. It’s like an IV for plants.”
The facility is a centerpiece of the Agriculture Program’s continued effort to develop the Titmus Agricultural Center as a hands-on learning hub, as well as a recruitment and retention tool for students.
After planning, siting, and construction, the first growing cycle began at the start of the Fall 2017 semester. Two Agriculture Program students, Sean Trollinger, a junior studying Agronomy and Agribusiness, and Jody Jefferies, a senior studying Animal Science, volunteered for course credit. They were responsible for seeding, planting, nutrition, and general upkeep – all while gaining real-world experience to add to their resumes.
As part of Ferrum’s “Farm to Table” initiative, the first crop of romaine and bibb lettuce was sold to the campus dining hall. Extra heads were given to faculty and staff, with 200 pounds (along with 600 pounds of field grown cabbage) donated to Stepping Stones Mission in Rocky Mount.
“The goal is for Ferrum College to supply most of its lettuce needs in-house. Since we’re a demo/teaching facility, we’re also considering diversifying with cucumbers and tomatoes. I hope we can serve as a model for other colleges to engage their farmer community, students, and focus on homegrown sustainability,” said Dr. Durham.