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U-pick in Pinellas? Hydroponically speaking, yes

LEALMAN

Standing amid Jeff and Shelly Kellogg's field of tender leafy greens, curly yellow squash and spindly green beans, you hear the call of a herding dog and forget you're in the middle of Pinellas County.

Then reality sets in. There's no dirt under your feet, plants are arranged in vertical rows of space age-looking plastic foam planters, and the canine, a Belgian Tervuren named Cappy, is in an adjacent building.

But this local farm, with rows of fire engine-red strawberries for your Thanksgiving table, may still make your head spin.

Welcome to First Fruits Hydroponics U-pick farm, a new business that appears to be both the first hydroponic farm in the southern half of the county and the only U-pick farm in all of Pinellas.

The owners have run Kellogg's Kennel at the site for 15 years. Their home is off U.S. 19, with the "pet motel" in front, their home on the second floor and the farm out back. The kennel, which offers boarding and grooming for up to 150 dogs, is going strong. But as the economy lagged, the couple began thinking of new ways to bring in income.

They looked to their own interests. The Kelloggs frown upon pesticides in conventional produce and enjoy visiting U-pick farms with their children.

They took a second look at their back yard. A business was born.

The Kelloggs consulted with the owner of Hydro Taste, in Myakka City, who has a patented growing system. They borrowed $100,000 and converted the third of an acre to grow the equivalent of 3 acres.

That's 380 tomato plants, 100 blueberry plants, 4,600 plants of various vegetables and a cash crop of 10,000 strawberry plants.

"It takes maybe 15 to 20 minutes to pick at U-pick farms and it takes an hour to get there. It isn't worth it," said Shelly Kellogg. "You literally can do this in less time than it takes to do your weekly grocery shopping."

The plants are fed a quart of liquid fertilizer three times a day through what the Kelloggs described as a "glorified sprinkler system." They sit in a mix of vermiculite and perlite that holds the roots but doesn't feed them.

Proponents say that with hydroponics, there is less pesticide and water use, a longer growing season, increased crop yield in less space, more nutrition and better taste.

"Because we are not in the soil, we eliminate a lot of things," Jeff Kellogg said. "There are soil diseases and pests, and we don't have to deal with a lot of them."

While the Kelloggs say their produce is as good as "organic" — the term for produce grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically engineered seeds and other conventional methods — they cannot use the word because state labeling rules do not encompass hydroponics.

Jane Morse, commercial horticulture agent at the Pinellas County Extension, said she was not aware of another U-pick farm in the county. She noted that Gateway Organic Farm in Clearwater does some hydroponics.

The Kelloggs say their produce will be a few cents higher than the conventional stuff at the grocery store, but much cheaper than the organic variety. To start, they are selling squash and zucchini for $1.50 a pound and strawberries for $3.50 a pound.

They have begun talking to local teachers about organizing field trips and have signed on as distributors of a smaller hydroponic system for the home.

Of fruits and vegetables, Shelly Kellogg said: "It's amazing how (kids) only know it from being in a grocery store. We've lived in cities too long."

Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

First Fruits Hydroponics

3215 46th Ave. N; (727) 492-8908

ffhydro.com

1-5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday

U-pick in Pinellas? Hydroponically speaking, yes 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 3:30am]
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