It’s no secret that Dining Services at Virginia Tech is a leader in sustainability initiatives, from their reusable to-go program to their homegrown produce at Homefield Farm, formerly the Dining Services Farm at Kentland Farm.

Now, fresh produce isn’t just harvested in the university’s backyard. It’s cultivated in the dining hall, an arm’s length away from meals being served.

“With the help of David Rash, president of Groundworks Garden and Hydroponics Supply in Christiansburg, we were able to get two farm wall systems set up and running prior to the start of the fall semester,” said Lauren Snelson, assistant director of Owens Food Court at Owens Hall.

The hydroponic systems, each about three feet tall and two feet wide, hang on the left and right walls facing customers as they approach Farms & Fields in Owens Food Court at Owens Hall. Greenery sprouts forth from plastic cases. A tank at the base of each system holds tap water mixed with a nutrient solution. The water runs through tubes up to the top of the contraption and slowly drips down onto the growing greens. 

Herbs sprout from hydroponic systems installed on the wall at Owens Food Court.
One of two hydroponic systems installed at Farms & Fields in Owens Food Court at Owens Hall

“At present we are growing two types of basil — a green and a purple — as well as Swiss chard and parsley,” said Gwyneth Manser, sustainability manager for Dining Services and Housing and Residence Life. “These crops may eventually change, as the vertical hydroponics systems are conducive to a wide range of herbs and leafy greens.”

While produce at Homefield Farm is seasonally limited, hydroponic produce can be grown and harvested year-round because it relies solely on water and eliminates the necessity of fertile soil. Once the systems were installed, the only requirement to activate them was “plugs,” or the starts from which the plants can sprout and continue to grow. Alex Hessler, director of organic and sustainable vegetable production at Homefield Farms, grew the starts for this project.

“I have been so amazed at how well they’ve taken off,” said Snelson. “They wouldn’t grow this quickly in soil. We were able to harvest our basil for the first time during the fall semester, and we included it on a panini served at Farms & Fields.”

Expansion plans include the installation of 10 additional systems, but there is no set timeline or deadline for this expansion.

Photos by Christina Franusich

Written by Tiffany Woodall