Hydroponics: Farm-Fresh Produce, Hold The Soil
When I was growing up, no one needed an excuse to get dirty. Mud pies, sand castles, ant beds – there was always some bit of land begging you to kick it or dig in with your grubby fingers. And as a fearless little child, I would almost always oblige. I even ate a fire ant once, just to see what it tasted like. (Spicy, in case you’re wondering.)
Sadly, as an adult, digging in the dirt – not to mention the insects that come with it – has lost some of its appeal. My boyfriend and I planted our first garden this past spring, but now when I need a hole dug, I use a trowel or wear gloves to keep the dirt from getting mired under my fingernails. There are also certain backbreaking parts of the endeavor that I wouldn’t necessarily miss (anyone for carrying 50-lb bags of soil?).
Of course, the bounty I get in exchange for my labor makes it worthwhile – juicy red tomatoes, flavorful broccoli, what seems like an unlimited supply of spicy cayenne peppers. It’s hard to endure buying produce at the grocery store when I know that with a little effort and maintenance, I could grow a more delicious version at my home.
So when I heard about Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm in Tampa, their growing method piqued my interest.
A “COOL” GROWING METHOD
On recent sweltering day, I was on my way to visit Urban Oasis and realized they’re not kidding about the “urban” part. Within a mile of the farm, I passed a trampoline arena, a law firm, chain restaurants. As I pulled into the parking lot, I could see that they were making the most of their space, as rows of stackable hydroponic systems and foot paths appeared to occupy every bit of ground.
Everywhere I looked fresh herbs, lettuces and tomatoes were spilling out of their containers, looking crisp and delicious despite the heat.
I was soon greeted by Cathy Hume, who owns the farm with her husband, Dave. My first comment to her as I looked over their setup was a bit distracted: “This is so cool.” Just coming back from picking a crop of okra on the far side of the farm, she responded, “I’d say it’s hot!” and showed me to a table in their open-air market area.
Cathy told me how they started the farm in 2007 after seeing a TV interview with a Ruskin strawberry farmer using hydroponics. Cathy, who had previously worked as a secretary and a paralegal, said that she’d have probably laughed if someone told her when she was younger that she’d end up as a farmer, but she and her husband had always known they wanted to own a business together.
Dave had experience working with greenhouses and landscaping, and his family owned the land where Urban Oasis now resides. After seeing the serendipitous interview, they decided to start their farm and moved quickly from there. They cleared the property of overgrown trees and weeds, and Urban Oasis opened on April 15, 2008.
The farm has grown steadily, and in 2012, they nearly doubled their growing capacity to meet the added demand. They currently grow on about one acre, which translates to approximately seven to 10 acres of in-ground planting.
FRESH VEGGIES, ANYONE?
While some struggle with growing in the Florida heat, Cathy explained that the climate here works to their benefit since there’s such a long growing season throughout fall, winter and spring. A few hardy crops even hang on during the summer heat, such as eggplant and black-eyed and zipper peas.
Browsing around the farm, I studied thick crops of green scallions and admired rows of cute little radish heads peeping up at me. I also had the pleasure of sampling a hybrid variety of cherry tomato developed at the University of Florida that was flavorful and juicy. When I pressed Cathy for her favorite vegetable, she had a hard time choosing but admitted that, unlike me, she’s “not a big okra girl.”
Urban Oasis’s customers list a variety of reasons for frequenting the farm: some are combating health issues; others are trying to avoid supporting big agribusiness; many just love tasting vegetables like the ones they used to eat at Grandma’s house. After all, produce is harvested on Thursdays to be sold at the Urban Oasis market on Fridays and Saturdays. They use no toxic pesticides, insecticides or herbicides, and they control their own seed supply, choosing non-GMO and Florida varieties.
In addition to selling their farm-grown produce, Urban Oasis sells hydroponic systems for those looking to start growing for themselves. Cathy and Dave also help with installations, for example at local restaurants and schools where they’ve helped build farm-to-fork menus and educate children about how their food reaches them. Cathy said she views their work as “bringing gardening into the 21st century.”
In addition to the potential for a cleaner, more sterile growing environment, Cathy listed several other reasons that many gardeners are choosing to go hydroponic these days. It’s a viable option for someone who wants to farm but is short on space or lacking rich soil. Some folks choose stackable systems so they don’t have to bend and forage for ripe vegetables grown in the ground.
Others simply find it’s easier to set up and maintain. According to Cathy, the whole system can be up and running in two to three hours, and a timer can be set to take care of watering.
I know there are many gardeners who couldn’t go without the feeling of soil between their fingers, but there’s a growing cadre of farmers who favor this tidier, less space-intensive alternative. And it shows – when I spoke with Cathy, they were once again in the process of expanding at Urban Oasis.
THE DIRT ON HYDROPONICS
hy•dro•pon•ics:– The cultivation of plants in nutrientenriched water, with or without the mechanical support of an inert medium such as sand or gravel.
TRANSLATION: NO DIRT NECESSARY.
If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to mistake the material that hydroponic vegetables grow in for soil. In reality, there are a variety of growing media – from mulch to pebbles to glass – that can be used in hydroponic farming, but soil is not optimal.
At Urban Oasis, they use coconut fiber. Imported from Sri Lanka, it’s a byproduct of the market for other coconut products. The fiber is sterilized, compressed and sold in blocks that can be reconstituted with water and then added to the growing containers. The coconut material retains moisture, supports the plants’ root systems, and helps them get the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
Nutrients are delivered in a mixture of fertilizer and water through a system of pipes, which with stackable containers, requires only 1/10 of the water necessary for traditional growing. Pretty much anything you can grow in a normal garden bed can also be grown hydroponically.
And because the plants have to expend less effort on growing roots, penetrating dense soil, and searching for nutrients, they are able to flourish quickly by investing all of their energy into foliage, flowers and fruit.
CHEF ON THE FARM - John Carminati
A professional chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando and in kitchens across the globe, John Carminati is the farm manager at Urban Oasis.
It’s a job he’s had for a few years, following volunteer work at the farm that “got him out of the cave,” as he refers to the many nights spent in windowless kitchens.
Today, he helps head farmer Dave Hume plan out the planting schedule and determine new produce to add to the farm’s line up. He also greets customers during market days, giving them ideas for how to use certain produce, consulting on potential hydroponic systems (Urban Oasis offers home and business setup) and presenting cooking demonstrations. After a long day’s work, you’d think he’d be done with veggies, but most evenings he goes home to tend to his own large garden.
“There are flavors in fresh produce that you’ll never, never find in what you can buy at the grocery store,” says Chef John. “I have a love for growing my own vegetables and always want to have my own produce and herbs on hand.”
Here, he shares a recipe using three greens grown on the farm – vitamin-packed kale, arugula and Asian tatsoi, which tastes a bit like a cross between mustard greens and spinach.