You know those places where you go and you feel a sense of calm and peace? Where the air just seems so clean, people are friendly, and there is so much to look at? Well if you haven’t experienced that type of place try visiting Water Fresh Farm in Hopkinton, MA.
The owners, Jeff Barton and Phil Todaro have known each other since they were lab partners in 7th grade science class. Going into business together was something they talked about in high school and college and even during their careers in corporate marketing and sales.
They knew they wanted to work together, to manufacture a product, and that it should be something that benefited the environment and community in which it was made. They decided to build a hydroponic farm and we are glad they did.
Water Fresh Farm has been in business now for almost 15 years growing mostly tomatoes and selling them to large grocers like Stop and Shop and Whole Foods. Recently, though they built a retail extension onto the greenhouse with a market and restaurant/café. In the retail space they sell their own produce as well as products from other local producers. The restaurant serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner and uses the fresh herbs and vegetables grown literally feet away.
In the process of building the business they have created something special, a building whose architecture is intentionally connective giving customers a front row view of where their food comes from.
Once you decided on Hydroponics how did you know where to start?
We went to the University of Arizona and attended class by Merle Jenson. He designed the hydroponics systems at Disney’s Epcot center and is a highly regarded expert in hydroponics. His class taught us a lot but he has also become a paid consultant to Water Fresh Farm. We take pride in the fact that our hydroponics system was designed by Merle Jenson and are lucky to have his continual involvement.
How much food do you produce at Water Fresh Farm?
We grow about 150,000 pounds of food a year depending on the year, light etc.
What is the difference between conventional and hydroponic?
Obviously soil is the main difference but in a conventional system fertilizer (minerals and nutrients) are mixed with water then added to the soil so the plant roots can absorb the minerals from the soil. In hydroponic system the nutrient rich water is directly available to the roots so the nutrients are provided when the plants need it. Just like humans have different nutritional needs at when they are babies, teens and adults, plants have a lifecycle with different nutritional requirements at different stages. We can provide what the plant needs at different points in the lifecycle.
What are the benefits of hydroponics for your customers?
The food is of a high quality. In hydroponics systems and at Water Fresh Farm in particular for our market and restaurant crops are harvested when they are ready to be used. So the produce is fresh and has its nutritional and medicinal properties intact (vitamins, minerals, phyto-nutrients, etc).
You didn’t take on outside investors to build this business why that decision? Wouldn’t that have made your life easier?
We are a small family operated farming business. We know farms that have taken investment from big investment companies but then they were beholden to their investors on a profit basis. We don’t want to compromise on the quality of the product or the ethos of the business and that would definitely happen if we took outside money.
Fresh Water Farms recently opened a market selling direct to local consumers with a unique observation area that extends into the greenhouse. Is that by design and what was your intent in building that connected space?
The design of the market and the observation deck area are very intentional. We wanted to connect visitors with the place the food is grown and have an opportunity to educate people about how we grow, and the benefits to them.
We also sell products from other local producers that compliment what we grow to provide more selection and efficiency in our market which helps us build more connections in the local community.
Given that your growing practices are so good I was surprised that you aren’t labeled as organic can you talk a little about that?
Organic certification has a lot of requirements and one basic requirement is that the food is grown in soil. We don’t grow in soil obviously. This is a really interesting and somewhat confounding aspect of regulation because some organic growers actually use a certain amount of pesticides which is allowed under the organic certification.
We use no pesticides but still cannot benefit from organic labeling.
We have read that it is both cheaper and easier to grow conventionally why not take that route?
In order to sell to a local market you have to offer something that is good, safe and beneficial to the community. These are people you live and work with. It would be easier to use pesticides and we could get better yields but that is not the business we want.
If you do not use pesticides is that because you don’t have pests in the greenhouse environment?
Hydroponics are not unique to having to deal with pests but we made a decision not to use pesticides to have a high quality product. So we use integrated pest management, introducing beneficial insects like bumble bees and wasps that can help us deal with problem pests like white flies. In our first year we had a real white fly problem and Merle Jenson helped us through that by suggesting we use wasps that are so small I have never even seen them. They do the job and I like to think of it as nature taking care of nature.
What's the hardest thing about farming?
For us, it would have to be the number of variables that can impact production. Perhaps it was from not coming from an agricultural background, but understanding all of the things that mother nature throws at us that can impact the plants and how to proactively counter them is an ongoing learning process. For example, even though we grow in a controlled environment with the greenhouse, a week of cool, cloudy weather in the early summer could interfere with pollination and cause the plants to become vegetative. Altering nutrient mix and feeding cycles to match the needs of the plants as they react to the weather helps them remain healthy. Learning about Integrated Pest Management and how to use beneficial insects to combat pests has also been a big learning curve, but a process that is extremely important for those of us who do not use pesticides to combat pests.
What has been the biggest surprise to you in this whole process?
When we first started operations back in the late 1990’s, it was initially difficult to get the supermarkets on board with us that there was an inherent advantage, and value, to locally grown produce. The conversation had always been about dollars – the buyers just wanted to find produce at the lowest cost. It took some more forward thinking individuals to understand our concept and message and give us our start. Now, of course, the conversations have completely changed and people understand the inherent value of locally grown products.
Did you feel you were taking a big risk when you left the corporate job scene to go in this direction?
Of course, it was a big risk. I was used to a salary and benefits and there was an obvious comfort to that. However, I suppose it is difficult to turn off the yearning to create something as well as work for your self – at least it was for me.
What's the thing you love the most about this job?
Growing great tasting produce is about as tangible as you can get. To see someone delight in the taste of something we have grown; to see them walk into our market and the greenhouse and look in wonder and hear them say “wow”; and then to have someone come up to me and thank me for doing this – it just doesn’t get much better than that. Those moments are when I know I have done the right thing, that I have accomplished something special with my life.
About the 50 VOICES OF LOCAL FOOD series
Food is simple, but food systems issues get complex very quickly.
So while simple slogans (“eat local food!”) have their place, it’s valuable to dig in and understand considerations of health, environment, regulation, economics, and more. Ultimately that’s how the smartest and best decisions can be made, both for individuals and for the food system at large.
That’s the thought behind 50 Voices of Local Food. In this series MyFreshLocal talks to people engaged in local food in many different ways. Farmers, chefs and restaurant owners, lawyers, legislators, artisan producers – name a segment of the food system and you’ll find those folks in 50 Voices series.
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