Ferrum College students grow produce in winter with no soil

Students work to perfect hydroponics as alternative revenue option for farmers

FERRUM, Va. – Students at Ferrum College are changing the way farmers in Southwest Virginia work. The system known as a hydroponic greenhouse allows farmers to grow produce without soil.

Dr. Tim Durham, an assistant professor of agronomy, says the greenhouse has already completed its first growing cycle, which started in the fall.

The system uses a nutrient film hydroponic technique, which means no soil is needed. Instead, seeds are planted in a material called rockwool. It allows the produce to grow in a tight space, using a tiny stream of nutrient water to keep plants nourished.

"You're trickling a shallow stream of water down a pitched channel, almost like a gutter of sorts," says Durham. "This is particularly well-suited for things like romaine, bibb lettuce, leaf lettuce or any leafy greens."

Not only is produce being grown on the Ferrum College campus, but it's being used there as well. The first crop of romaine and bibb lettuce was sold to the campus dining hall, supplying about 75 percent of the on-campus demand.

The facility is funded through a Tobacco Commission grant with matching funds provided by the college.

Durham says the goal is to offer up a profitable alternative revenue stream for farmers who are looking to transition out of tobacco. He says the potential to grow other produce year-round could be a big money maker for farmers who have historically used more traditional farming techniques.

"To farmers I would say, 'Don't be afraid of the initial cost because it will actually pay for itself over time,'" says Kateri Smith, a senior working on the project.

Durham says for many farmers, the systems pay for themselves within the first year or less.

"It's at least comparable, if not better than field grown," he says. "The real benefit, the wild card, is that you can grow this counter-seasonally. That means off-season lettuce production and you can really command a price premium at the market."

In many cases, the lettuce grown from hydroponic systems can be sold for as much as $3 to $4 a head.

Durham will begin holding seminars over the next year. He'll teach local farmers how the hydroponic greenhouse works and help them figure out the best way to incorporate it into their existing facilities.