Although it seems brand new, hydroponics is actually an ancient growing method – consider the hanging gardens of Babylon and the floating gardens of the Aztecs. During World War II, hydroponic systems were sent to soldiers on non-arable Pacific islands so that they had a food source. Scientists and botanists have continued to fine-tune hydroponics techniques, and today it’s considered a hot agricultural innovation.
A few years ago, Shelley Mathews, CEO of FullCircle26, recognized its potential for growth (get it?) and became the North American distributor of high-tech Opcom hydroponic systems, made in China. Right away, the former VP of Dixon Ticonderoga drew parallels between the science of her grow systems and what was happening with STEM in schools. To date, more than 1,000 schools now have Shelley’s systems in their buildings. She’d like to get them into more, and in a recent interview told us that she thinks the educational dealer network can help.
Ed Dealer: How’s business?
Shelley Mathews: Over the last three years, it’s increased by double digits. Really, since we’ve started, it’s been an amazing ride. Hydroponics was a new science to me when I started as a sales rep with OPCOM. When they offered me the opportunity to become the North American distributor, I felt it was my calling. The owner told me, “I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing this because people need to eat,” and I’ll never forget it! I thought I’d like to help him roll out his products in North America.
Opcom is a great company; a standard-bearer for quality medical devices. Like those devices, the hydroponic growing systems are backed by high tech, but are so simple to use.
So your company more than survived the COVID lockdown.
Yes, in part because food insecurity accompanied the pandemic last year. People reached out to us – especially senior citizens and members of the military – because they wanted to start growing their own food.
School orders increased, too, especially since the USDA made organic hydroponic operations eligible for the National Organic Program (NOP). It’s helped our business because it made our systems eligible for grant funding.
How do teachers use them?
We get a call from a teacher about every other day asking for a quote on our products. Many are looking to support their STEM curriculum; others are looking at hydroponics from a nutrition standpoint – to feed kids and to teach them about healthy eating. We’re working with a chef in Texas right now who teaches nutrition.
We were delighted to receive letters this week from customers in Kodiak, Alaska. A high school is using our Grow Wall 3 as part of a skills-based curriculum teaching students with special needs. They’re doing outstanding!
A high school in Vermont just bought one of our Pallet high-capacity systems – brand-new this year. The school is in a farming community and is also equipped with greenhouses, barns for livestock, and aquaponics, which is fish. They’re passing on innovative agricultural skills to a new generation.
Hydroponic systems check every box in terms of education, from plant biology to tech and social skills. Jannie Wray, our director of program and training development, made sure our plant-growing curriculum includes all sorts of opportunities for teaching – teaching seed identification and harvest, of course, but also how to research and make presentations.
What can your systems grow?
Depending on the unit, you can grow just about everything, including greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and fruit. I grew a cantaloupe using seeds from a store-bought melon! People who have units in their homes tell us they grow strawberries and mixed greens – lettuce, collard greens, bok choy. From school kids we found out the units can grow root vegetables and flowers.
What are your bestsellers in the education market?
The Tabletop Growbox is the most popular with elementary schools. Each child is given a spot, and they can nurture what they planted from seed to harvest. It’s easy to teach from because it’s kid-accessible.
Our Growbox 2, a stackable unit that we call “the workhorse” is also a hot seller.
What would you like educational dealers to know about FullCircle26?
1. That selling hydroponic systems to schools is a huge opportunity for them, and
2. We’re ready to work with them. It’s one of the reasons we advertise with Educational Dealer magazine – to let them know hydroponics is a viable area for them, especially in the way it complements STEM curriculums in schools.
Currently we work with distributors – Nasco is the biggest – and we attend ECRM. Our products are also featured on rangeme.com, the product discovery and sourcing platform that many retailers use to find good ideas.
We’ve created a retail program with point-of-purchase displays, and our systems are in some stores that sell growing products. I’d like to get dealers and teacher stores selling our products, too. Not only are our systems used for teaching purposes, they’re also used to improve air quality, and in some cases to feed the students.
And they’re also used for aesthetics and lighting! As architects and school planners look at the future of our nation’s schools, we have some catching up to do in terms of green walls. Recently, some designers from Canada reached out to me about utilizing our units, in all sizes, as sustainable LED lights.
Sustainability in school design and architecture – I definitely see hydroponics as part of that mix.
To see the full line of Opcom hydroponic solutions, visit fullcircle26inc.com.