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Hydroponic growers offer a new way to buy local

Sophie Kirkner, 22 months, looks for strawberry stragglers at Hydro Harvest Farms in Ruskin.

Sophie Kirkner, 22 months, looks for strawberry stragglers at Hydro Harvest Farms in Ruskin.

We want our microgreens local, our heirloom vegetables organic. A new crop of hydroponic entrepreneurs delivers with tiny farms of leafy greens, the kind foodies love. Others set up vertical frames where heirloom vegetables grow in odd buckets until the moment they are ripe. For the home cook and the chef, that's fresh news.

RUSKIN — As farms go, John and Terrie Lawson's place looks a little silly.

Plants are in rows, but there's no dirt, just three-quarters of an acre covered by black plastic. The crops, from eggplant to the last strawberries, spill out of hanging baskets of white Styrofoam stacked three or four to a pole in endless clotheslines linked by thin plastic tubes.

It looks more like a science fair than agriculture, or perhaps a 1950s Popular Mechanics cover headlined "Miracle Foods Grow in Air!''

In fact the vegetables, fruit and herbs of Lawson and fellow hydroponic farmers in Florida grow in water, not air. That water, remarkably small amounts of it, is imbued with all the nutrients and minerals that plants would otherwise root for in dirt.

This alternative technology is far removed from the whole-earth romance of tilling the soil. Yet it has roots in modern Florida, visible in NASA experiments, Walt Disney World's Land Pavilion and large strawberry experiments in Plant City. Hydroponics are useful where land is scarce or less nourishing, for instance on Anguilla in the Caribbean, where the food-forward CuisinArt Resort & Spa depends on massive hydroponic gardens.

So the prospect for Florida foodies hungry for local produce may lead back to the future as much as back to the land.

And that's just fine. Hydroponics can produce old-fashioned flavor, heirloom crops and local produce as well as any other medium.

And these crops are usually grown organically, free of pesticides and herbicides. Nutrients and minerals are organic too, although the use of vermiculite and perlite for a growing medium prevents full organic certification.

A synthetic medium or the odd pot can't change the character of the seed or the size.

So Lawson can brag about his arugula and Moskovich tomatoes. "Sweetest tomato ever. I had people call me up after they got home (wanting) more.''

He has also grown pumpkins, melons and big stalks and ears of corn. In Pasco County, Deanna Keiper has banana trees.

Most important, food from hydroponic growers, whether in Ruskin or Dade City, is local. That's a boon to the new group of "locavores" who dream of eating only food grown within 100 miles of their kitchen.

In Florida, where small market farms and gardens are rare and commercial farms focus on large crops of winter vegetables for the frozen North, hydroponics is a different option.

For growers, it requires little land, crew, water or machinery, and it's friendly to the environment — and second careers.

For the home cook, shopper and U-picker, this means a wider and fresher selection of produce.

Some hydroponic growers like Keiper at Bane's Hydroponic Farms have produce "clubs'' where members can buy a fresh harvest of seasonal vegetables for $25 a basket or so.

For U-pickers, hydroponics allow personal selection, perfect ripeness and no bending, stooping or kneeling, ideal for people with limited mobility.

Most crops are harvested year-round, as growers replant the plots in the traditional cycle of Florida's sunny seasons.

"I've got green beans, yellow wax beans and lots of bell peppers,'' Keiper said. When summer heats up she'll have black-eyed peas, okra and purple eggplant. There will be crisp lettuces and squash.

"I can't grow anything in the ground,'' says Keiper, a hairdresser by trade. "But I can grow everything in hydroponics.''

And so can you. Lawson, Keiper and most other growers sell systems and nutrients to folks to grow at home.

That's as local as produce gets.

Chris Sherman can be reached at or (727) 893-8585.

>>fast facts

Down on the hydroponic farm

Hydroponic growers around Tampa Bay offer a wide variety of products, but supply is small and availability changes constantly, especially in summer. Call first for hours, directions and produce. Variety is greatest in fall, winter and spring.

Most farms sell produce and give the U-pick option. Some offer "produce clubs," providing a variety of fruits and vegetables. Most sell home kits starting at about $90. A sampling:

• Bane's Hydroponic Farms (Dan and Deanna Keiper), 27907 Miller Road, Dade City; (352) 206-5687;

• Hydro-Taste Farms and Hydro-Stacker (Chester Bullock), 7308 Verna Bethany Road, Myakka City; (941) 322-0429;

• Hydro Harvest Farms (John and Terrie Lawson), 1101 Shell Point Road E, Ruskin; (813) 645-6574;

• Parke Family HydroFarms (Gary Parke), 3715 Tanner Road, Dover; (813) 719-2904;

Hydroponic growers offer a new way to buy local 06/24/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 5:18pm]
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