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Fresh Off the Farm

By Christina Darnell | Photography by Lisa Turnage

Posted: Monday, Jun. 23, 2014

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The idea for 100 Gardens was birthed when 72-year-old Ron Morgan returned from a relief trip to Haiti in 2010. The earthquake had just ravaged an already tumultuous economy. Wanting to help, Ron and a team of like-minded people got involved in aquaponics — gardens that grow fish and plants together in its own sustainable ecological system. His team quickly found that developing a network of aquaponics labs could serve a dual purpose. It could work as an effective teaching tool for Charlotte-area students and train Haitians to grow their own food. We sat down with the entrepreneur to talk about this unique mission.

100 Gardens has built aquaponics labs in Charlotte and Haiti — how are they different?
The ones in Charlotte are tied to schools, and the only real challenge is to relate them to existing curriculum so science and math teachers can use the gardens. The extra food we produce goes to Friendship Trays, so it’s got a community purpose that’s important for kids to be part of and understand.
In Haiti, it’s different. The purpose is to train trainers to do more gardens. If we could do a couple training centers, find the resources to multiply our efforts, and train the Haitians, then we could be effective in helping to restart their economy.

Why ‘100’?
The literal number isn’t so important, but it helps us start to frame a conversation. We’re not about building one or two things. We’re about building a network of gardens, because our intention is to change the way people think. We can track everything from water temp to pH balance and iron content — all these things can be made quantifiable, and you can make them into charts and graphs and pie charts and get them up on a screen. Then you’re connecting Garinger High School with South Iredell High School with South Meck High School on a website, on an iPad. Now you can have conversations really and truly based on science.
And by the way, we’re building two training centers in Haiti, because that’s where it all started. So you’re talking about Haitian kids using the same data and talking with kids here. It opens up an international conversation.

This is pretty heavy scientific stuff.
This is science at its best, and you can go as deep into it as you choose to. It starts out with this wow factor. We’ve got plants up in the air and in long beds, and we do it artistically. We paint the tanks. We make it clean and nice, so it’s interesting like a laboratory should be. Like an artist studio. And the kids are going, wow this is cool. And that leads into them wanting to learn about it.

So what can you grow in an aquaponics lab?
You can grow everything except root crops like potatoes and carrots. We tend to grow lettuce of various kinds, because it’s fast and always useful. Beyond that, it’s almost anybody’s choice.

Why set up base in Charlotte?
I don’t think you could pick a better city in America. This place is being discovered as one of the fastest growing metro regions in the nation. Charlotte is truly a cheerleader, a ra-ra Chamber of Commerce. It’s a lot easier here to have a voice. If you tap into that, you start to say, we can be the first metro region in the world to have a network scientific system — and they go for it.

What are your plans for the future?
We have leased a 13,000 sq.ft. warehouse in NODA. Our plan is to open a retail store called Seeds. It’s going to be a for-profit retail garden store that sells the same kind of equipment we use in our gardens — hydroponics and aquaponics. This warehouse will be a place where people can come for training and see a garden and walk into it and do training workshops.

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