An indoor hydroponic farm is coming soon to downtown Columbia after plans for the business received unanimous approval from the city’s zoning board.
Urban Fresh Farms expects to open its first location March 19 in a vacant warehouse at 1315 Calhoun St. Plans for the facility include an indoor farm, mostly to grow lettuce, and a retail storefront where customers can buy fresh produce or pick out their own live lettuce to harvest later at home.
Hydroponic farming involves growing crops without soil. Instead, nutrients vital to the plants are infused into water that is pumped through pipes directly to the plants’ roots.
“The reason plants grow roots is to dig down and find the nutrients in the soil,” said Scott Harriford, who started Urban Fresh Farms with his father, Chip Harriford. “With this, everything is provided, and in turn, the plant can focus on (growing) the leaves, which will give you a faster crop harvest.”
Scott Harriford said growing lettuce hydroponically cuts the growth cycle almost in half, to 27 days. While that is one benefit, the business’ biggest draw will be cutting costs for its clients, he said.
Urban Fresh Farms’ main focus will be supplying organic produce to nearby restaurants, groceries and even schools, Scott Harriford said. And for those clients, buying local produce eliminates the cost of shipping it in from faraway farms, he said.
“Most of the produce grown that we eat around here comes from the west coast, California, Arizona and even as far as Mexico,” Scott Harriford said. “When you go to a big produce buyer or supplier and say, ‘I can cut 30 percent off your bottom line without you having to invest in any massive infrastructure,’ it’s a no-brainer.”
Scott Harriford said he came up with the business plan while working on a project as a senior at Heathwood Hall in Columbia. He continued to develop the business model over the past few years as a student at the University of South Carolina, bouncing ideas off of his father and other USC students.
The downtown Columbia location will be Urban Fresh Farms’ first, but new locations are planned for Tulsa, Okla., Caney, Kan., and Detroit, Mich., Chip Harriford said.
Elizabeth Marks, president of the nearby Robert Mills Historic District, told the zoning board neighbors have been worried about what will become of the old Burns Auto Parts warehouse. But after meeting with Chip and Scott Harriford, neighbors are “completely supportive” of the business, she said.
“We’re really excited that this is a unique, creative, unusual resolution for this building,” she said.
Some members of the zoning board applauded the business idea, both during and after the meeting.
“I think the idea is excellent,” zoning board chairman Ernest Cromartie said during the presentation. “It’s good to see these types of new uses in older buildings.”