A fresh green salad on the side at lunch, or by itself with all the accoutrements, adds color and taste to a meal in a tantalizing way. And if the salad selection is served at one of nearly 20 Columbia restaurants, chances are excellent that the leafy delights originated from Paul Grant’s Freshly Grown Farms, 8 miles east of town off Bluff Road.
For the past 10 years, Paul, a 42-year-old Columbia native, has been growing a wide array of crops in his half-acre tract of greenhouses, producing specimen quality plants using an agricultural method known as hydroponics. In its modern applications, the soilless hydroponics process is used to grow plants in water containing dissolved mineralized nutrients. Agricultural scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, advanced hydroponics growing in the 1930s, but the technique has roots stemming back thousands of years.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is cited as one of the first examples of hydroponic agriculture, using water drawn from the Euphrates River. In the Western Hemisphere, the Aztecs grew fruit, vegetables, and flowers in containers along the shoreline of wetlands.
In South Carolina today, most of the state’s hydroponics growers are amateurs like Bill Smith, a transplanted Missourian who retired to the Hopkins area about three years ago. Bill cultivates greens, tomatoes, and cucumbers in his small greenhouse. He credits his success to Tammye and Gary Burchfield, operators of The Urban Garden on Two Notch Road, who provide him with support, advice, and friendship.
The Burchfields have been in business for eight years, selling nutrients, media, plant lighting, and other hydroponic equipment. The store also carries a full line of soils, soil amendments, individual macronutrients, and other products for gardeners who shun conventional fertilizer and pesticides, opting to grow their flowers and vegetables organically.
Gary says he and Tammye started their business with a focus on hydroponics, but they have diversified in recent years because of customer demand for organic products. Gary, the technical voice of the business, can address the science behind hydroponics and why it is such an effective way to produce multiple crops of high-quality produce while using 80 percent less water than conventional gardening.
“With hydroponics, we can grow 18 heads of lettuce in a 2-foot by 4-foot space and harvest a crop every 28 to 30 days,” he says. He adds that many people are skeptical about food grown hydroponically because of the use of “chemicals.” In the minds of some, “chemicals” suggests hydroponics involves man-made compounds like paint thinner. The truth is, he points out, “The nutrients used in hydroponics are natural minerals mined from the earth.”
Tammye agrees. “While growing hydroponically may not be well-known to some gardeners,” she says, “it’s actually a global industry used for mass food production. Gardening, of any kind, is a very rewarding and therapeutic hobby, spanning all socioeconomic classes. Customers grow their own food for several reasons, including allergies, health concerns, and controlling what is in and on their food. When you grow your own food, you control the quality of the end product.”
Paul Grant says he and his business partner, Ari Shainwald, set up their first two greenhouses about 11 years ago, gearing them to produce leafy greens that they could sell at any of the several Columbia area farmers’ markets. He says his business epiphany came one Thursday, a market day, when a downtown chef looked over his wares and declared, “I could buy all of this stuff right now, but instead of doing the farmers’ market every week why don’t you bring your stuff to me?”
Paul realized then that his marketing goal should be courting the people in charge of commercial kitchens. Although he maintains a regular presence at the Saturday Soda City Market on Main Street, on Tuesdays and Thursdays he packs his van full of greens to deliver to his stable of restaurants, health food markets, and catering companies.
“We’re selling them eight different varieties of lettuce, arugula, mustard greens, rainbow chard, and three different kinds of basil,” he says.
Paul’s farm operates year-around. His plants grow in natural light, under controlled conditions. They are heated conventionally in the winter while cooled in the summer via evaporative coolers, sometimes called swamp coolers, that lower temperatures through the evaporation of water.
The use of mineralized water technically disqualifies Paul’s produce from carrying an organic label, but he makes every effort to mimic organic production by particularly avoiding the use of pesticides when insects like thrips and aphids try to take up residence. When that happens, he releases into his greenhouses a “loveliness of ladybugs” sent to him by a dealer in California. Called integrated pest management, the technique has to be conducted at a precise temperature and sunlight or the ladybugs will fly away. Ladybugs are voracious pest killers. A hungry adult can devour 50 aphids per day and as many as 5,000 over its lifetime.
Hobbyist Bill’s hydroponics system is fundamentally the same as Paul’s. Both start seedlings in small blocks of rock wool that are later transplanted as the plants develop. Paul’s commercial system is made of shallow plastic channels with holes for individual plants every 8 inches. Bill’s system is constructed of PVC pipe in which he drilled holes with a keyhole saw.
Paul stores his hydroponic solution in a large underground tank able to hold hundreds of gallons. Bill stores his nutrient solution in two 30-gallon plastic storage containers sunk in the floor of the greenhouse.
“I like this system because it’s automatic. I have a timer set so that my nutrient circulates for 15 minutes and shuts down for 15 minutes,” Bill says. Earlier this year, his operation was in full production, turning out tomatoes, cucumbers, and leafy greens. “We had enough greens to give away and supply all of the people at the dentist’s office where my daughter works,” he says.
Bill’s tomatoes and cucumbers are produced in what growers call a “Dutch bucket” system using 5-gallon paint buckets with the lids cut out to allow a Folgers coffee container to fit inside. He drills holes in the coffee containers and fills them with special clay pellets about the size of marbles to support his plants. The nutrient solution is pumped into the assembled bucket, and the plant happily grows though the clay pellets.
Like most home hydroponic growers, Bill is self-taught. He admits he has a healthy dose of curiosity. “I rely on the internet a whole lot to tell me what to do,” he says. Besides his hydroponics system, Bill is experimenting with a hydroponics variation called aeroponics — growing plants in an air or mist environment. Plants in his aeroponics system are planted in a lid atop a plastic storage container where the bare roots dangle to be sprayed at intervals with a nutrient solution.
In addition to the internet, Bill says he counts on the Burchfields and their hydroponics shop. “They’re really knowledgeable. I learn something new every time I stop by.”
Fish Waste as Plant Food
Scientists know that plants grown in a soilless environment can make use of all kinds of nutrients, including some that come from a novel source, namely fish waste. The Native Americans commonly used fish as a fertilizer on the East Coast as it provides nutrients and amino acids that assist in plant growth. In fact, it was Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe who taught early Pilgrims about these benefits.
In a spinoff of hydroponics growing, the Clemson Extension Service is also involved in another water-based agricultural technique named aquaponics. Lance Beecher, Ph.D., extension associate for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquaponics at Cooperative Extension Services, along with Clemson University students, operates a greenhouse in which they grow an array of crops in a unique system where, instead of a mineralized solution, a tank of fish produces waste that sustains plant growth.
Lance says the aquaponics system not only grows fruits and vegetables but is also a method of raising nutritious fish for the table or for market. Lance’s statewide aquaponics effort has been in place for eight years. With his mobile display, he conducts workshops at local high schools, county fairs, and tech centers — wherever he can find an interested audience, including fans at a Lexington County Blowfish baseball game. “The system works by taking water and running it through plants, which clean it up and make it available for the fish,” he explains.
Aquaponics is still largely a niche activity because while growers can find a ready market for fruit and vegetables, no processing facility in the state handles a large volume of fish. Using a 30-foot by 40-foot greenhouse at his headquarters in Pendleton, Lance produces crops that include tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, and even strawberries. A tank full of tilapia provides his nutrient source, but he says other fish species could also do the job just as well. Some aquaponics systems have used bream and catfish. Other operations choose high-value fish such as koi and hybrid striped bass.
Experts like Lance maintain that with climate change and the increasing pressures on conventional agriculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, and other progressive or resurging methods are destined to become important for the human diet of the future.