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Local IU grads’ hydroponics store start club to grow more food on campus


Kyle Billman shows the hydroponics system he has set up for his tomato plants Feb. 6 in Goldleaf Hydroponics Indoor Garden Supply. A container with the water flows into the containers with the plants, giving them the nutrients they need. Mallory Smith Buy Photos

Goldleaf Hydroponics is not your typical garden store.

A tray of microgreens and tomato plants bask under grow lights, but there’s no soil to be seen. Tilapia swim in a pool where their excrements are piped into tubs of water with plants held up by clay balls instead of dirt.

The store’s displays are living examples of hydroponics, which is a way of growing plants without using soil. The store, started by two IU grads about two years ago, is creating a student club at IU that will help introduce hydroponics to campus.

“It’s like a reason to wake up in the morning and harvest and eat your own food,” Kyle Billman, co-owner of Goldleaf Hydroponics said. “It connects you with this primal feeling.”

Kyle and Monica Billman graduated from IU in 2014. While Kyle was on the waiting list for a master’s program, he got a job at Worm’s Way, a hydroponics company that originated in Bloomington in 1985 and was one of the first retailers to sell hydroponics supplies nationally. 

Kyle got hooked. He had grown plants since he was 15, but learning hydroponics made his passion even stronger.

Instead of the plants getting nutrients from broken down organic compounds in the soil like decaying leaves and animals, in hydroponics, those nutrients are replicated in a lab or organically turned into liquid. The liquid is then fed to plants through the water they live in.

“My favorite definition is ‘growin’ shit in water,’” Kyle Billman said.

Worm’s Way had a base of 44,000 customers between its retail and online stores, Billman said. In 2016, Worm’s Way was bought out by investment company Sun Capital Partners, which closed Worm’s Way’s Bloomington store. 

Kyle and Monica saw the gap Worm’s Way left and decided to fill it. They got married in May 2016 and opened Goldleaf Hydroponics in November.

The store has free hydroponics and gardening classes and does outreach with local organizations and Fairview Elementary School, where Goldleaf has helped a third grade class grow their own lettuce using hydroponics.

Goldleaf recently created Goldleaf Growers at IU, a student group that will focus on bringing hydroponics to IU’s campus. Kyle and Monica’s goal is to eventually spread hydroponics systems to dining halls and dorm lounges so that students can eat fresh food that was grown on campus.

Tarin Tischler, Goldleaf intern and IU grad student, was one of the driving forces of starting the student club, which had its first official meeting Wednesday afternoon at the IU Food Institute. The club plans to install the first hydroponics system on campus at the Food Institute building on North Park Street.

Tischler first learned how to do hydroponics when she began working for the store last semester. She said most people who grow plants at school just grow houseplants to keep them alive, but she thinks growing food through hydroponics is different.

“To go from seed to produce is so much more rewarding,” Tischler said.

Monica does much of the store’s administrative and outreach work. Kyle and she joke they should have studied at the Kelley School of Business, she said. Monica majored in political science and French, and Kyle majored in Spanish and linguistics.

At home, Kyle and Monica grow about one third of their food and stay busy with their 11-month-old, Kai. Monica said taking care of plants is similar to taking care of Kai.

“You have to make sure they’re thriving every single day, you can’t not feed them,” Monica said. “You have to watch out for any kind of pests they might have and treat them before they get worse.”

When grown indoors, plants grown in hydroponics systems need grow lights, which add to electricity usage, Kyle said. The amount of money and electricity put into hydroponics is one of the main criticisms of the growing system which some say is not sustainable.

While it may cost more to grow food indoors, Kyle said it’s worth it to him because it cuts down on fossil fuel usage from transporting food and gives him emotional benefits.

“It may use more resources,” Kyle Billman said. “But as I like to say, it’s cheaper than therapy.”

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