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Horticulture Students Grow, Harvest Hydroponic Tomatoes

Tomatoes Now Available at Hamilton Store, Used at College's New Restaurant
MORRISVILLE, N.Y.—Shanon Judge and W. Garran Murphy are pretty busy these days.

The two Morrisville State College horticulture students are devising business plans, going over marketing strategies and measuring profit statements—the usual things that go along with running a business.

But Judge, 19, of Vernon Center, and Murphy, 47, of Syracuse, aren’t really working in the business world—at least not yet.

They are both members of the Morrisville State College Horticulture Institute, an on-campus enterprise that teaches horticulture students about the different aspects of the industry, including running a business. Nearly everything they do mirrors what they will actually be doing in the business world some day.

Students’ latest entrepreneurial endeavor through the Horticulture Institute is harvesting and selling hydroponically grown tomatoes, or mo’matoes, as the institute markets them.

In hydroponics, vegetables and fruit are grown indoors in nutrient solutions instead of soil. This means in the middle of winter, when most tomatoes are green in the grocery stores, Morrisville’s juicy fruit is ripe and ready to eat.

The mo’matoes are a popular produce item at Hamilton Whole Foods in Hamilton, N.Y., which recently began stocking them.

“Everybody loves them,” Monica Costa, co-owner, said. “They taste just like a summer tomato. We have people who come in and specifically ask for them.”

The mo’matoes are also a desirable product at the college’s student-run floral shop and the Hamilton Farmer’s Market in Hamilton, N.Y., where they are sold during the summer. They are also being utilized at the college’s new restaurant, the Copper Turret, on West Main Street in Morrisville, N.Y. Current demands have students harvesting approximately 60 pounds of mo’matoes per week. And selling them renders great things for students and the horticulture program.

In addition to learning about the biological components involved with growing mo’matoes, picking, washing and sorting them, and running the hydroponic equipment, Morrisville horticulture students are also tapping into the actual business world—promoting, selling and delivering products to the market.

“It’s been great working with Morrisville,” Costa said. “The interaction with students has been very professional and they have always been consistent with the product and delivery.”

The experience means a lot to Murphy, a returning adult student who plans on starting his own business featuring gardens and greenhouses designed to employ people with disabilities after he graduates.

“We’re being exposed to many important aspects of the field and the hands-on experience we are obtaining is unlike anything,” Murphy said.

The hands-on skills students are tucking under their belts will undoubtedly make them more marketable in the industry.

But Judge and Murphy are also realizing it isn’t easy being in business. There’s a lot to learn, like how to turn a profit. Selling the mo’matoes translates into important revenue for the Horticulture Institute, money that is used to fund field trips and purchase equipment.

A good portion of what students learn comes from classroom lectures. They also draw on their own innovative ideas and suggestions from horticulture professors.

The Hydroponics Enterprise

In nearly every aspect of Morrisville State College’s horticulture program, especially through hydroponics, students are learning the latest technology and are using some of the latest equipment in the industry.

In the confines of a greenhouse blanketed with mist and the intoxicating aroma of tomatoes, the process of growing hydroponic fruit begins. Seedlings are planted and a computer-controlled dripper system provides water and a formula of nutrients to the plants through thin plastic tubes.

There are holding tanks, reverse osmosis water, fertilizers, nutrients, sunlight and heat, all which contribute to transforming the seedlings into plants bearing bright red fruit normally only found in open fields during hot weather.

Hydroponics is a way to grow quality produce free of herbicides and harmful pesticides and enables the production of mass quantities. The procedure minimizes problems with weather, providing a controlled setting where students are able to leave the fruit on the vine longer. This makes mo’matoes a far cry from most grocery store fruit which are often forced into ripening and lack flavor.

“Leaving them on the vine longer is an important part of obtaining the flavor,” Murphy said.

Incorporated into students’ daily routine are tasks that include maintaining the shrouds of vines. One daily ritual involves pollinating the flowers on the tomatoes, a job usually done by bees—a process Morrisville State College horticulture students mimic with an electric toothbrush instead.

Additionally, students are responsible for checking tanks, training and pruning plants, checking the sodium and PH levels of water and making nutrient mixes.

Morrisville State College’s horticulture program has encouraged students to dabble in other projects, too. They’ve grown hydroponic strawberries, gerbera daisies, and even potatoes.

“We want to embrace students’ ideas to try new things,” Dave Soucy, assistant professor of horticulture, said. “If a student has a personal interest outside of class, we’re open to discussing it and seeing how they can explore it.”

Through the Horticulture Institute, students are also able to engage in other entrepreneurial activities, including running an annual plant sale and flower sale for the general public.

Morrisville State College’s mo’matoes can be purchased at Hamilton Whole Foods, 28 Broad St., Hamilton, N.Y. The store is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. They can also be purchased in the floral shop on the Morrisville State College campus.

Morrisville State College’s horticulture program provides students with a wide range of training to enter various career fields and offers concentrations in floral design, horticulture production, landscape development and management and general transfer. The college has a student-operated floral shop and four greenhouses.

Morrisville State College offers 12 bachelor degrees and a wide variety of associate degrees and options. Considered to be one of the most technologically advanced colleges in the nation for its ThinkPad University program and wireless technology initiative, the college recently became the first in the nation to comprehensively replace landlines in residence halls with individual cellular phones. Morrisville State College was also chosen as one of the top five colleges in the nation for campus activities by Campus Activities magazine. The Morrisville State College Norwich Campus also offers programs in business, technologies, liberal arts/education transfer, and nursing to Chenango County area residents and employers.