Hydroponic growing produces a consistent product for
Gonzaga University. SPOKANE, Wash.—An empty expanse of windows inspired dining services at Gonzaga University to install a hydroponic garden. Chuck Faulkinberry, resident district manager for Zag Dining by Sodexo at the university, says bringing greenery to the café is one way to counter the grey Pacific Northwest skies that students see out the windows.
“We met with a local hydroponic farmer, and he partnered with us to get the garden up and running last summer,” Faulkinberry says.
The department installed the hydroponic garden in a bay of windows in the dining hall. The garden currently is used to grow two varieties of bibb lettuce. The 300 heads produced monthly account for 10% to 15% of the department’s lettuce needs. The garden will also serve as a learning lab for Gonzaga students, faculty and staff, with the hope that the program can eventually be expanded to the University Center, currently under construction.
“We want to make sure everything works right,” Faulkinberry says. “Then we will start to venture into growing other products and also expanding the space. We have a lot of windows and we are only utilizing about 10% of the window space right now.”
Dining services already was buying a case of hydroponically grown lettuce per day from the local farmer, Stewart Fry, so customers were already accustomed to the product by the time the dining room garden was built. Even though the garden is now producing lettuce, the department still buys a case of hydroponic lettuce from Fry twice a week.
“Each head of lettuce costs $2, which makes a case of 12 cost $24, which means we were spending $168 a week last year,” says Sarah Clifford, marketing manager for Zag Dining by Sodexo. “As of right now, we are saving approximately $120 a week because of the garden. We are mainly using the lettuce for lunch service at our Tossed to Order salad program.”
Learning hydroponics: Faulkinberry says getting university administrators on board early on helped get the project off the ground. Working with the health department to satisfy its requirements was also important. He says the project was relatively easy because hydroponics doesn’t require soil, fertilizer or pest control, which are the usual sources of garden problems.
“The main thing [we learned about hydroponics] was that it produces a consistent product,” Faulkinberry says. “It’s very sustainable. It uses only about 30% of the water that it takes to grow [plants] in soil. It’s very self-contained, and the nutrients come from saline so it’s all natural.
“[The garden] has really made a big impact on the look of the dining room. We may be a little biased, but we feel like the flavor of the lettuce is much better.
At a cost of less than $20,000, “it’s been well worth it,” Faulkinberry says. Faulkinberry advises other operators interested in trying a hydroponic garden to get everyone involved early, especially administrators, since many are looking to invest in sustainability projects. Clifford also recommends partnering with resources such as a local farmer like Fry.
“[That partnership] was critical for us in getting the garden up and running,” Clifford says. “We were able to purchase from him for a year leading up to the garden, so we were able to help out a local business. For supporting his business he was willing to help us build the garden. It was win-win.”