Hydroponic Farming, Wave of Future

by Peter Schwarz

Where, in the dead of a Minnesota winter, can you get a fresh, vine ripened tomato, or a sweet pepper, or a sprig of fragrant basil? Right here, deep in the heart of Scandia or, to be precise, at Twin Pine Farm on Lofton Avenue, half a mile north of Highway 97. Here, Donald and Gary Hogle, a father and son team have built the only hydroponic vegetable farm in the greater Twin Cities area.

 

Hydroponic (yes, only one h) is the science of growing plants in a solution or an inert material without any soil, and usually in a controlled indoor environment. Thus, plants are not exposed to airborne pollutants, soil contaminants, pesticides or herbicides. And, because plants are fed precisely what they need, when they need it, they develop to their full potential, both in size and life cycle.

At first glance, Twin Pine Farm may seem like any other hothouse operation, but there are significant differences. Most hothouse produce is grown for shipping; the produce is harvested before it is ripe, then often treated to ripen while in transit or awaiting distribution to grocery stores and restaurants. Since flavor and texture never develop to full maturity, "hothouse produce" has acquired a derogatory connotation. By contrast, hydroponic plants are grown to full maturity under near ideal conditions, imbuing the produce with a richness of flavor and texture that may surprise even the connoisseur.

According to Gary Hogle, vice president of sales and marketing, hydroponic farming technology may well be the wave of the future. Technology indeed. Twin Pine's brand new 9,000 square foot facility is a model of efficiency with operating systems designed by Dr. Donald Hogle, a chemist and president of the company. Liquefied plant nutrients, mixed with water at a preset ratio, automatically irrigate plants through a labyrinth of plastic plumbing. Constant moisture is maintained in the pots, trays or bags where plants root in Perlite, an inert volcanic glass. Enormous intakes supply filtered air which is exchanged every six minutes through exhausts. In winter the exhausts are closed and the air, now heated by infrared radiators, is recycled. These self-regulating systems provide a stable environment which is backed by an electric generator should a power failure occur.

This controlled environment produces plant growth the average gardener can only dream about. Indeterminate tomato plants are pruned to eight feet or they'll grow too tall for easy harvesting. The life cycle of such a plant is eight to ten months. Dr. Hogle said in New Zealand, hydroponic tomato plants produce for up to 14 months.

To prevent contamination, everyone must step through a "green shield" foot bath prior to entering the growing room. All plants are started from seeds to avoid the introduction of pests and minimize disease. Specially grown tomato or cucumber seeds are shipped from Holland, others from Maine in the United States. Any potential pest infestation is controlled by integrated management, trade lingo for the introduction of lady bugs, lace wings, tree frogs or predatory Formosa wasps. Pollination is accomplished with the aid of bumblebees.

Twin Pine Farm is already building a reputation. Sales to date were largely limited to walk in retail customers and the occasional foray to a farmers market. Production was small and in transition from experimental to commercial levels. However, the new facility will soon be in full operation and negotiations with Twin City suppliers to some of the area's finest restaurants are under way. Among these, the Voyageur Cafe in Marine has the distinction of being the first to use Twin Pine Farm produce.

Other produce to be introduced shortly is lettuce, spinach and watercress. Herbs also are available now with others to follow soon, including oregano, basil, tarragon, peppermint, sage, rosemary, nasturtiums and scented geraniums used in jams and jellies. Ultimately, a variety of 32 fresh vegetables and herbs will be available year round. By Thanksgiving Hogle hopes to also have a small processing operation under way, producing gourmet oils and vinegars in decorative bottles. After all, who would not enjoy a holiday gift of basil and garlic in extra virgin olive oil, or for that matter, a decanter of raspberry-peppermint in imported champagne vinegar?

Amazingly, the retail cost of Twin Pine Farm produce and herbs is comparable to local supermarket pricing. "We manage to stay competitive because we can grow so much more in a small space," Gary Hogle said.


Country Messenger, October 18, 1995
Copyright 1995, Country Messenger, Scandia, Minnesota.