HCC earns USDA grant for hydroponics farm

Published on: December 13, 2012

A grant will double the hydroponics growing area at Hillsborough Community College campus in Ruskin and become part of its earth science course.


RUSKIN — Karen Lewandowski said going to school saved her life.

Every day, while a Hospice patient undergoing radiation and using a walker or cane, friends drove her back and forth to classes at Hillsborough Community College.

Most of the staff wasn’t aware of her grave condition until she was doing much, much better and decided to share her story.

But because going to school was what kept her going during her hardest of times, she wanted to give something back.

When she did, it benefited many besides those at HCC.

“Thanks to the can-do attitude and pro-active work of Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) honor society Vice President Karen Lewandowski and Professor Karen Boosinger, HCC-SouthShore students will soon begin growing hydroponic crops intended for sharing with the local migrant farm worker families,” said HCC’s spokeswoman Kimberly French.

Lewandowski and Boosinger worked closely with faculty advisor Diego Grilli; PTK Honor Society president Nicole Lynch-Schuyler and Shannon Galey, vice president of PTK membership, to come up with an award-winning project that also earned the school a grant.

After getting the project up and running, the founding group plans to turn it over to students to run it.

“The project was based on migrant farm worker families. What they grow and what they can use in their meals,” said Lewandowski. “We visited several local organizations and toured their facilities and decided to work with the Good Samaritan Mission in Wimauma.”

The project will take into consideration many elements of green technology, including using rainwater to irrigate and the natural growing seasons of local crops.

“Students will learn about growing and the community will eventually get to share in the bounty,” said Dr. Witt.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the project a Community School-Garden Grant for $3,450 that will be used to expand the existing hydroponics garden located on the southwest side of the campus.

Owners of Hydro Harvest Farms, 1101 Shell Point Road E. in Ruskin, had notified the school of the possibilities for obtaining the grant and assisted them in learning about hydroponics farming — which is a method of growing plants and vegetables using nutrient solutions in water, without soil. Plant roots grow in the mineral nutrient solution in gravel, clay, husks or other material but not in dirt.

“We had less than 60 days to write the grant and submit it in time,” said Lewandowski, to whom the others gave credit for “taking the bull by the horns and getting the project done.”

“We wrote it in August and submitted it by deadline on Sept. 17 and got the results in late November,” Lynch-Schuyler said.

The (original) hydroponic garden was started at HCC as a joint class project in English and Science (before the grant was applied for). Science students were doing the hands-on work and the English students were writing poetry about it, said Campus President, Dr. Allen Witt.

Now with the grant, it will more than double in size.

The school has submitted the project to the PTK International Awards Committee and that’s earned the campus Society a 5-Star rating. “We went from being a One-Star club at the beginning of the semester and reached 5-Star, the highest level,” said Shannon Galey.

Four students will be flown to San Jose, California for the International Honor Society Awards ceremony April 4-6 but the four students haven’t been named yet.

An essay written by the group will also be judged during the event as part of the “Honors in Action” project.

Another honors student, Christine Putt, has taken on the job of gathering, reporting and submitting data based on questions she will submit to officials at Good Samaritan Mission. These have not been written yet but the goal of the questionnaire is two-fold. First it will gather information that will help the recipients who use the mission’s services and second, it will be used for reporting the uses of grant money to the USDA.

Professor James MacNeil will eventually incorporate the hydroponics garden into his earth sciences classes, said Dr. Witt.

“This is a win-win situation for everybody,” Dr. Witt said.