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Class project leads to indoor farm business

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Leaf lettuce grows under the lights at Royal Greens’ indoor farm at Ridgeway. The company, which in March launched operations in a former 173,000-square-foot textile plant, provides produce to restaurants and stores in the Columbia area. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)

By Chuck Crumbo
Published Nov. 17, 2015

(From Sept. 28 – Oct. 11 issue of Columbia Regional Business Report)

What started as a high school senior project for Scott Harriford has blossomed into a company that literally makes its own green.

Harriford is half of the father-son team behind Royal Greens, an indoor wholesale hydroponics farm that celebrated its grand opening last March in Ridgeway.

Located in a 173,000-square-foot former textile manufacturing facility that had sat empty for 20 years, Royal Greens specializes in producing and selling a variety of lettuces, kales and basils for commercial restaurants and grocery stores.

The company employs about 20 people, but plans to reach 100 workers by September 2016, said Chip Harriford, the father.

“Ever since he was in high school, Scott has wanted is to run a business,” Chip Harriford said. “Everything that you see here is the result of a very persistent 17-year-old.”

The idea for Royal Greens stems from a research project that Scott tackled when he was a senior at Heathwood Hall.

Scott’s subject was hydroponics, a system of cultivating plants using mineral nutrients in water without soil.

But before launching into business, Scott had to learn something about sustainable farming practices and how to grow lettuce.

Among the resources Scott tapped was working for Eric McClam, co-owner and farm manager at City Roots, the urban farm near the Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport in Columbia.

Another part of his preparation involved getting a job at Rosewood Market, a neighborhood health food store.

“I was one of the guys first to see produce off the truck,” Scott said.

What he learned was that about 25% of the lettuce shipped to the store was damaged or bruised and not saleable, Scott said. “That’s money lost before it every gets to the customer.”

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Sabrina Craig prepares an order. Royal Greens uses a hydroponics systems to grow lettuce at its Ridgeway facility. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)
Scott, who’s now 22 and a senior at the University of South Carolina majoring hospitality, retail and sport management, focused his project on using hydroponics to grow lettuce.

His experiment concluded that using a water culture system and florescent light panels are the most efficient and inexpensive ways of producing food with hydroponics.

Help from USC

Taking the knowledge he had gained from the school project, Scott in 2012 launched JAH Roots, an urban hydroponics garden.

The company also signed on with the SmartState Center of Excellence in Tourism and Economic Development in the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, moving into 1,000 square feet of space in the Laurel Street building’s basement.

At one point, Scott left his dad to run the hydroponics garden while he spent a semester studying at the University of Macau in China.

“If it were not for Bill Kirkland and Simon Hudson, we would not be here,” Chip said. Kirkland is executive director of the Office of Economic Engagement at USC, and Hudson is the endowed chair of the Centers of Economic Excellence in Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management.

Royal Greens plans to serve customers within a 400-mile radius, Scott said. That way the food will be fresher, transportation costs lower, and offer a longer shelf life for stores.

“We don’t pick anything until it’s ordered,” Scott said.

In addition, Royal Greens hopes to cash in on the preference of consumers preferring locally grown produce over food that’s trucked in from California.

“We want to harvest and deliver within eight hours,” said Chip, 53, whose business background includes serving as a consultant and engineer in the renewable energy field.

Added Scott, “It gives us better quality and more control.”

Another advantage of a hydroponics farm is that it can grow more lettuce in less time. For example, a 4-foot-by-4-foot square can grow 64 plants in 30 days. If the plant is a leaf lettuce instead of head lettuce, it can be harvested every three months.

The Harrifords’ plan is to produce 70 types of lettuce and kale, 100 varieties of peppers and 100 varieties of tomatoes, among many other vegetable choices.

To achieve a closed-loop sustainable food growing process, Chip Harriford added that future plans call for raising catfish and tilapia in tanks on the premises. Fish waste would be processed and used for plant food while plant waste would be fed to the fish, Chip said.

Tapping into agritourism

Getting the plant ready to grow food required workers to go through the facility four times scrubbing everything from the floor to the ceiling, and sealing off all cracks to guard against contamination and outbreaks of listeria or salmonella, Chip said.

Food is grown without the use of pesticides and herbicides, Chip said, adding that Royal Greens is aiming be “GAP-certified,” Chip added. GAP stands for Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling.

Another piece of Harrifords’ plan is to tap into agritourism, inviting the public to tour the indoor farm and see what Plant Manager Dan Dollarhide said will soon be a “sea of green” growing inside a building.

Presently, plants grow on flats stretch out beneath lights, but soon the company will incorporate the use of a hanging garden.

Workers have punched holes about an inch in diameter into downspouts. Plants will be inserted into the holes and water and nutrients fed through the hanging downspouts.

Using the downspouts will allow more square footage of the building to be utilized for growing, Chip Harriford said.

The Harrifords also see their business model being applied to just about anywhere, particularly at locations near large metro areas where they are plenty of restaurants that could be customers.

The use of hydroponics to grow plants has been around for years, but primarily on a hobby scale. Few have been able to capitalize on hydroponics to produce food commercially because of turning a profit can be challenging.

“I just think people were not really sure about the technology,” Scott said. “We’re becoming a more and more technology-based world. When someone puts that (technology) into the food system that disrupts how food is grown, you turn heads. Though technology has proved that it can work, the initial investment was too high.”

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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