New methods, same goal | The river reporter
By HUNTER HILL
As many of you know, whether reading this column or through the community vineyard, my wife and I are still working in agriculture, whether with vegetables or cattle. Very recently we started operating the vegetable stand on the Beach Lake Highway, which was previously run by the Mueller Vegetable Farm. They were our neighbors until last year when they retired and moved south. Lucky for us, although we’ve lost some of the best neighbors we’ve ever had, we’re able to stay in touch and get back to some of the farm work they left behind. Keeping that farm stall stocked with fresh vegetables throughout the week is no small feat in itself. And given the amount of work involved in cultivating crops, it doesn’t hurt to start working smarter, in any way you can.
For a long time, I have been fascinated by engineering solutions to improve agricultural productivity i.e. hydroponics and aquaponics. You may be familiar with hydroponics as a method of growing food in sandy or mostly liquid gravel without using soil. However, most people haven’t heard of aquaponics: the use of fish farming to create additional nutrients for the water to replenish plants, which filter and recycle the water back to the fish. In both systems, there are very similar setups for the way plants are grown, most often in rafts atop the water, or in gutters called Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) gutters. NFT describes how plants growing in openings at the top of the gutter receive nutrients, which travel in a floating film through water passing through the plant roots. Air is also important, of course, which is why this method is so common. As the roots of the plant descend to the water, there is free air and space between the plant and the water, allowing carbon dioxide and other necessary gases to be absorbed by the exposed root. My goal is to eventually build a large aquaponics system to grow not only the vegetables we are currently growing, but also a sustainable and consistent fish harvest. In the meantime, it’s important to take small steps towards progress like this and learn what is needed to get to where you want to be.
With that in mind, I purchased three small hydroponic stands which, again, don’t include fish. I have planted some leafy greens that we will eventually start selling at the farm stand. As a precursor to this step, my wife and I enjoyed growing a small amount of herbs indoors during the winter months using a smaller device that works essentially the same. With just a small water pump and a three-tiered hose rack designed to allow gravity to do the work, over a hundred plants can be grown on just one of these racks at a time. My son decided they looked fun and were very helpful in removing the seedlings as they were placed in each planting site. With a small correction, he quickly became distracted and began to watch water being pumped from the lower tank into the gutters.
We have a few weeks left to see how this next step unfolds, but apart from the harvest, there is no time more exciting than putting new seeds in the ground, or in this case, l ‘water.
Going out here, we still have the same goals that we always have: to grow food, to survive, to develop our skills and to teach our children. We may have new techniques and methods of doing these things, through simple technology, but at the heart of our family, our business, and our way of life are these same goals.