Growing vegetables from fish-poop-enriched pond water inside massive "grow domes," could supply Southern Oregon with a year-round, affordable supply of local produce, according to a trio of plant-savvy students from Southern Oregon University.
The team will join 15 others from across the state Monday for the Oregon University System's first Social Business Challenge, a competition where students from eight Oregon colleges will present their best social business models to decision-makers from across the state.
The team's solution to increasing the availability of local food is called "closed-loop aquaponics," says member Andrew Mount, who studies environmental science and business as a sophomore at SOU.
"It's such a robust solution," says Mount. "Locally grown food is inherently more secure than having food trucked in, from an ecological and economical stand point."
Senior business major Jeffrey Jensen and junior biology major Sean Lowry also will present to a panel of 18 judges including SOU President Mary Cullinan and other leaders from organizations and institutions across the state.
Aquaponics is the marriage of fish farming and hydroponic farming, says Mount. Through the practice, hundreds of fish or crustaceans live inside a 2,500- to 5,000-gallon pond, and as the pond begins to dirty, the water is siphoned out and used to bathe the roots of plants growing from nearby beds of gravel — all beneath a dome. Everything the plants needs for food is in the fish waste, Mount says.
The event's keynote speaker is Muhammad Yunus, a 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his work in developing micro credit as a means to grant low-income and impoverished individuals loans and other financial resources across the globe.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Secretary of State Kate Brown also will speak.
The top three teams are splitting $10,000 in scholarships to any of the seven OUS public institutions. All of those schools are represented in the competition, including a team from Reed College.
Portland State University's Social Innovation Incubator program and Springboard, a similar independent incubator program, will provide at least $2,500 in financial support to help the winning team's model get off the ground.
"This is not just a one-off. We're going to showcase how phenomenal and talented our students are, and then the top teams will get their businesses incubated," says Bridget Burns, OUS chief of staff. "We'll continue to showcase how exceptional they are, and maybe we can launch them someday."
It's a noble and important cause, Yunus says.
"If you're not solving a problem, then you're not a social business," he says. "Make it totally dedicated to solving problems. You are not interested in making personal profit out of it, and by deleting some of the personal profit, your mind and your approach becomes totally free and dedicated to the single purpose of solving that problem."
For more information about the event, which will be held at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, and is expected to draw up to 1,000 people, visit www.ous.edu, and click on "The Challenge Event" tab in the middle of the page.
Mount isn't nervous, he says.
"Farming is my calling. It's what I was meant to do. We are not going to be able to continue growing food the way we have been for much longer — and I know this will work," he says. "This can solve the volatility of our food industry."
The group is partnered with Ashland-based Pacific Domes, which is providing the first 90-foot-wide dome to house the project.
The group, which Mount says will eventually grow into a business, plans to raise and harvest fish and crustaceans in the pond, which will provide the food for basil and a variety of other herbs, strawberries, mixed greens and other vegetables.
Some of what's harvested will go to social service programs in the area, Mount says. The rest will be sold to restaurants and other distributors and sellers of locally grown food.
Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.