Here in the deep south, we’re accustomed to farm-fresh veggies all winter … but come Memorial Day weekend, the heat prevents us from enjoying the veggies our northern neighbors harvest during the warm summer months. One local farm is trying to change that. One grower is skillfully stretching the season using the miracle of hydroponics. Knowledgable care, advanced techniques, and a passion for produce reap nutritious rewards at Sweetgrass Farms
As the growing season lies dormant in Southwest Florida, one local farm defies the barrenness of the landscape. Sweetgrass Farms sprung onto the scene in late 2014, and it continues to grow – literally – seemingly without the seasonal restrictions associated with traditional farming. But then, not much about Sweetgrass is traditional.
“We acquired this land in 2008, but weren’t entirely sure what we were going to do with it,” says owner Kathy Demler. “We thought we would likely hold it for awhile and then sell it. We certainly did not intend to own a farm.”
In 2013, Jim and Kathy Demler approached their gardeners, who were growing hydroponically, to see if they wanted to purchase the land. The gardeners weren’t interested in that transaction, but the conversation inspired a vision for the farm, prompting both families to join forces.
As a urologist, Jim’s schedule was already full, and while Kathy admits she was searching for “something” after leaving her teaching position, she was not prepared for it to be farming.
But the universe had plans already in motion.
A year and a half after that seemingly innocent conversation, the Demlers have expanded their property, assumed full ownership of the business, hired a farm manager, and introduced Sweetgrass Farms to Sarasota. “The reality is, we love it. The community has been absolutely fantastic; they’ve completely welcomed us.”
It’s easy to see why: by growing hydroponically, the Demlers use 90% less water and fewer resources, but still deliver fresh organic vegetables to a local market craving whole food. “The food industry is changing,” says Kathy. “People see what’s going on, and they’re making the choice to learn where their food comes from and how it’s grown.”
The History of Hydroponic
Hydroponic farming means plants grow in a nutrient solution rather than soil. The practice dates back to the Hanging Towers of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and was used by other ancient civilizations, including the Aztecs and the Chinese. The Dark Ages caused the expansion of the method to stall, but in the 1930s and 40s research grew again.
Hydroponic growing combines the study of chemistry, botany, biotechnology, and farming. It’s a system studied by NASA (after all, we may need to grow food on the moon) and showcased at EPCOT.
Sweetgrass Farms uses a system called Verti-gro© – the same one used at Disney. Plants are grown vertically, in towers that hold twenty 12 x 12-inch planters. It’s an extraordinarily efficient way to grow a large quantity of food in a small amount of space.
DO TRY THIS AT HOME!
Sweetgrass Farms sells an at-home-sized starter kit
for only $250.
When a seed is planted in dirt, the nutrients it needs to thrive are either found in the soil or added to the soil via fertilizer. Certified organic plants often get their nutrients from composted manure. Hydroponic plants at Sweetgrass Farms begin with traditional seeds, but they are planted in ground coconut. The plant grows without soil because the nutrients it needs to flourish are dripped directly onto its roots. Like traditional farming, this can also be done organically. “People see chicken poop and cow manure as organic and natural,” says Kathy. “The refined micro and macro nutrients we use are also natural.”
Hydroponic growth is faster than soil-based methods, and the plants are often smaller but fuller. “When a plant is in the ground, the roots search out the nutrients it needs,” explains Kathy. “Their roots can be two to three feet long. When a plant grows hydroponically, no energy is wasted in the search for nutrients, and it develops more quickly, even though the roots are only two inches long.” A dirt-free growing environment also means the farmer (and the plant) doesn’t battle bugs and soil-born bacteria. “The bugs don’t lay eggs in the coconut husks, so pests aren’t a problem at all,” says Jim. No pests mean there’s no need to spray with pesticides, making the growing process completely non-toxic.
Their farm manager, Jose Torres, is a wealth of information. He left his job as educator and sales representative at Verti-gro© to manage Sweetgrass Farms. His fingerprint is everywhere, from the design to the nutrients he formulates according to plant varietal. Part of his job is to refine the recipe to produce the most productive harvest. “Not every plant needs the same thing to grow,” says Torres.
Even with hydroponic growth, plants have a natural growing season, and Torres must keep this in mind as he strategizes for year-round growth. This is done, he explains, by planting heat-happy plants during the brutal summer months and warding off frost in the cold months by using steam in the greenhouses.
The goal to harvest all year means Torres and the farmers who run the farm are defying odds. “These farmers work so hard,” says Kathy. “They’re smart; they understand the future of food. They are growing the best quality food out there – and what they’re doing ensures fresh vegetables are always in season!”
FEMME ROUGE is happy to spread the word! Sweetgrass Farms is a beautiful, healthy addition to Sarasota. We like their product, their business practices, and their philosophy, and that’s why we’re proud to award them the FEMME ROUGE Seal of Approval as this month’s Locavore.
WHERE TO FIND IT:
- Order through the Sweetgrass Farms Buying Club sweetgrassfarms.com
- Sweetgrass Farms, 8350 Carolina St
- Sarasota Sarasota Farmers Market, State St, Sarasota
FEMME ROUGE recommendation:
Check out the events page at sweetgrassfarms.com to reserve your spot at one of their Farm-to-Table events. We can tell you from first-hand experience these events, catered by talented local chefs, are exceptional! Enjoy dining in the garden under the soft glow of string lights while your taste buds dance to the flavors of perfectly prepared protein and garden-fresh vegetables, picked moments before your meal. It’s an event you won’t want to miss.