A North Port, Florida farm
In this 50’ X 130’ space, Kevin Newell grows as much food as would be grown on 6 acres of farmland. Since he can get three rotations of crops in a year, in practice that makes this garden the productive equivalent of 18 acres.
The food produced here never puts roots in the earth, nor is it fed with manure of any kind, no animal matter and no chemical fertilizers. This virtually eliminates potential exposure to e coli or salmonella contamination.
On average the vegetables you buy in the store have been touched by 28 people before you take them home. "That's 28 chances to leave germs from the farm hand picking the crops to the stock boy laying them out on displays," Keven tells us. "Think of all the customers touching it once it's in the store. This way is cleaner."
“And,” the enthusiastic farmer is quick to add, “this is a green operation – no plowing to disturb the soil and increase erosion; uses 84% less water than regular farming and hydroponically grown vegetables are 150% more nutritious than organic vegetables grown in dirt.”
A diet of mined sea minerals and water
The plants receive a diet of PH balanced water and natural mineral salts mined from dried sea beds. “The sea provides the best possible food for growing plants. Try it,” Kevin tells me. “Go down to the Gulf and grab a bucket of sea-water. Dilute it one part to nine parts and use that to feed your plants.”
Romaine lettuce almost ready for market -- end of March
Close up of the romaine
May's heat brings an end to the lettuce crop
The day of my official “interview” visit to Kevin’s farm, May 2, the temperature in the mid afternoon reaches 93 F. The heat wave of the last few days has put an end to the lettuce crops – they all bolted, as lettuce is wont to do in such temperatures. He asks if I would use photographs taken by his wife, Afra Mendes-Newell, more than a month earlier.
Having been the fortunate recipient of several of these crisp, juicy heads of lettuce over the previous few months (my favorite is the Boston bibb – delicate and almost buttery in flavor,) I am more than happy to oblige. I can’t begin to describe how lovely the lettuce cultivated this way is compared to the store bought offerings. Kevin cuts them with roots still attached so his customers can place them in water and keep them alive until eaten, and the stems break with a sharp snap, releasing a milky sap and wonderful odour. (I never knew how fragrant lettuce could be.)
Like farmers everywhere, Kevin and Afra are quick to complain about the weather. “I planted a succession of lettuce so as to harvest in waves,” he says. “But the cold winter and spring meant that everything just sat dormant until it warmed up – so…”
“Everything was ready at the same time,” Afra finishes for him.
- In this part of Florida (Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf Coast) the area is characterized by pine and oak, palm and palmetto woods on sandy soil. The soil itself is mostly pulverized coral -- extremely porous, fast draining and next to barren in nutrients. Once the forest litter is removed (surprisingly thin) there is little to sustain heavy feeding vegetable crops. Soil requires massive amending with the addition of topsoil, organic matter and manure.
- Basically, the family of nematodes contains hookworms and roundworms but also microscopic worms that may infest a plant's roots and cause its demise. A real problem in Florida.
What brought you to the idea of hydroponic farming?
Kevin was quick to answer. “I have a lifelong history of involvement in health and non-traditional healing. I am very aware how important the quality of our diet is to our well-being.”
Also, he admits, his greatest motivation for farming is his interest in gourmet cooking, and a desire to have full flavored fresh vegetables and culinary herbs for his own table.
“I’ve never had luck with an in-ground garden in Florida,” he says. “Between the sandy soil(1), the bugs, and the nematodes (2,) I’ve had more crop failures than successes.” Two years ago, he began to look at alternatives.
He visited the major suppliers of hydroponic equipment (some linked below,) borrowed some of their ideas and used a combination of their systems to get started, and then turned his own engineering know-how on some of the technical problems he encountered, or to realize his vision of an improved system. He designed most of his farm, and built all of it himself.
Some of his innovations include a recycling
system that collects the water once it has trickled through the growing pots
and returns it to the reservoir for re-use, rather than letting it run off,
thereby saving even further on water use; a multi-plant system using ordinary
PVC pipes and fittings (shown below) ideal for growing tomatoes and allowing the vines to droop to either side for easy care and harvesting; and bunk beds for growing melons -- a system going into use for the first time this season.
Some of Kevin's unique growing environments
The seedling "nursery"
Seeding and seedlings
Rather than take up growing space for seeding, Kevin starts his seeds in a stacker set aside for that purpose. Seeds are sown directly onto the growing medium.
This system allows for highly intensive growing conditions for the seedlings, which will be removed from the “nursery” pots and set out in their selected growing sites once they’ve reached a size to allow for easy handling.
This rotation method allows Kevin to harvest from the growing sites while starting the next crop at the same time, and the seedlings grow at an accelerated rate.
How it all comes together
At first glance, the farm seems a complicated collection of stackers, pipes and tubs, tubes and wires – and it is. Yet it is surprisingly simple in operation.
At the end of each system of growing sites sits a reservoir of water and nutrients. The water is first PH balanced, then the nutrient growing solution is added in two parts, carefully measured to suit the plants growing in that system. For example, tomatoes will require a stronger solution than lettuce.
In each reservoir a pump on a timer turns on at preselected intervals, pumping water through the pipes and the feeding tubes that enter each growing stack or pipe.
In the stackers, water enters the first pot until it drains down into the second, to the third and so on. The growing pipes are set at an incline to allow the feeding solution to run down the pipe to all plants and then drain from the end.
Simple – beautifully simple. (And here, Kevin would laugh.)
Kevin's latest idea -- papayas
Kevin learned there was no American grower of papayas, and set out to change that.
The papaya vine is a hollow tube, not a woody tree, that grows up, then divides, setting and growing two fruit on each division. In commercial papaya operations in the Dominican Republic and other places, once those two fruits per vine are harvested, the vines are bulldozed down and new ones set out.
However, the papaya vine can be trained to grow not just two, but four, eight, sixteen fruit per vine -- more labor intensive, but suited to a small operation.
Below are pictures of this experiment -- the first papaya vines growing in their hydroponic tubs.
Capital investment of $13,000 and lots and lots of time and 'sweat equity'
Kevin estimates his capital investment, allowing no value for his time and labor, to be around $13,000. Of course, he has a business model, and knows how much income per plant pocket per month is required but it is not just the fickle weather that causes problems.
Nothing is ever as simple as it appears. There have been a multitude of technical difficulties to overcome, and this, Kevin’s first year in full production has seen the most unfavorable weather conditions in recent Florida history.
And there are always Florida’s insects to take into account. Kevin uses a copper spray for insect control – FDA approved for organic farming use.
But by far the most difficult problem has been the vagaries of the market place.
Kevin attended the Earth Day Ecofest here in Western Florida. Potential buyers from supermarkets and restaurant suppliers expressed great interest in his operation. Yes, they loved the quality of the produce; yes, they loved that he was local; yes, they loved his terms and certainly, they were interested in this and that and would soon be in touch. But no orders came in. When asked, the supermarket buyers hummed and hawed about established suppliers and that was an end to it.
Not to be discouraged, Kevin approached the end-user directly, attending Florida’s famous farmer’s markets and explaining his process and produce. He’s met with mixed results.
For the coming season, he hopes to follow the model of a national organization of organic hydroponic farmers – that is the co-operative garden. For a set fee (for example say $500) a customer buys into the garden which allows him a share of the crops for that season. (The season being 24 weeks, give or take.)
Why 24 weeks? The snowbird season doubles Port Charlotte’s population, increasing Kevin’s market considerably, and these winter Floridians are usually affluent and prepared to pay a premium for fresh, organic vegetables.
“And summer is just too hot to work on a black ground cover in the full sun,” says Kevin.
What he foresees is a forty-sixty split in his market – forty percent co-op garden customers and sixty percent restaurants and produce stores.
We wish him the best of luck.
As long as I’m one of the forty-percent, I’ll be happy. Would it be worth it to pay $500 for a share in the crops his farm produces? How loudly can I say yes? From what I’ve enjoyed of his produce so far – count me in.
larrytoren on June 07, 2015:
You are mentioning the 13.000$ amount, with less, let's say 8.000 can you scale down the project?
John on April 17, 2015:
I wonder whether you are in contact with other farmers or you are competing with them. I hope that it's less competition and more friendship.
For example Jessica's farm
stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on April 17, 2015:
Hi, this is a great interesting hub. I love the farm and how much food they grow in such a small area. My friend has a hydroponic farm here in N Fl. and I get most of my veggies from her. I really like the tomato plants and they way they are being grown. voted up and sharing.
apeksha from India. on April 17, 2015:
very useful information and nice hub...counts you in...
Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on April 17, 2015:
Wow, fascinating! I can see where fooling around with hydroponic farming on a small scale might get one hooked on the method. The organic aspect is such a plus. Congratulations on your very interesting Hub of the Day!
poetryman6969 on April 17, 2015:
Beautiful. If I ever do anything this neat, organized and useful, my wife will faint.
Consolacion Miravite from Philippines on April 17, 2015:
What a great hub on growing plants through hydrophonics! First time for me to hear about water with salt solution as food for plants. I am a farmer and this hub changed my way of thinking on how to go about things.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 17, 2015:
Great article on hydroponic farming. It sounds real interesting. Kudos on the HOTD, too! Voted up for interesting.
RTalloni on April 17, 2015:
Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this hub highlighting Newell's hydroponic vegetable process! Very interesting to see his work, and inspiring…
Diane Ziomek from Alberta, Canada on April 17, 2015:
I used to live close by a hydroponic storefront (25 years ago), and they grew cucumbers and tomatoes for sale. I bought some small planters and the nutrient mix for my houseplants, but I think growing vegetables would have worked better.
whonunuwho from United States on April 17, 2015:
Very nice and inspirational my friend. I've got to try some of your ideas. whonu
Thelma Alberts from Germany and Philippines on April 17, 2015:
Awesome! I think this is a wonderful thing to grow our own food. I have not heard about this hydroponic gardening. Thanks for the heads up. Congratulations on the HOTD. Voted up and useful. A well deserve award.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on January 26, 2015:
We can only hope so.
Ronald A Newcomb on January 26, 2015:
Great work on the gardens! Unless I miss my guess (this is rare) I assume similar techniques will be used in the future in greenhouses worldwide for food production at some level well about our current levels.
Jochen Englicky from Overpelt, Belgium on January 25, 2015:
There is some great information in this article, I used to have a little aquaponics garden, but since I live in a somewhat colder climate, it wasn't very succesful. I'm hoping to build a greenhouse next year so I can start again.
I love all the herbs you're growing, I like rosemary a lot too, it's great to use in pasta's
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on August 07, 2012:
Maximizer from San Jose, Costa Rica on August 06, 2012:
Wow, this is just an incredible hub. It's amazing the kind of production you can get from a grow system like this! Thanks for sharing
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on June 18, 2012:
I don't know, Nikki. I'd suggest contacting some of the hydroponic supply houses in your area for info. Most of the time suppliers are more than happy to educate.
Nikki Green on June 18, 2012:
How can I begin to learn about hydroponic gardening in a hands on class? I am willing to pay. Please send me an email with the information to email@example.com. I also live in the northwest indiana location.
gary on May 21, 2012:
please call me as i have someone wanting to buy 500 stackers, you have my number
pippap from Surrey, BC on February 25, 2012:
Brilliant hub! Simply brilliant! It's detailed, easy to follow and inspirational.
Bruce on January 12, 2012:
Wow! That is such a great hydroponic garden! One of the best I've ever seen. I've been building one in my back yard the last month, I bought most of my equipment at http://redlandsupply.com, and I am well on my way. It probably won't be anywhere near this cool though.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on September 26, 2011:
Hi Peg, Tell you what; email me and I'll send you Kevins email info. Best to ask him directly, seeing as he's dealing with the same problem. He's a great guy and more than willing to help anyone getting started. Thanks for commenting. Lynda
Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on September 26, 2011:
Now there's a great idea for next year's garden. I've been doing the container thing on the deck for a while trying to avoid the pilage from bunnies and mice. This year I got a nice crop of blueberries and a few peppers before everything burned up in the 60+ days of 100 plus degree weather. I wonder if hydroponic plants could withstand the intense heat here.
Anyhow, great information and beautiful pictures.
Roy WU on February 13, 2011:
Do you want to import some vegetable seeds from China, can be planted in farm for good yield, also can be put in your beautiful gardeng?
Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tks in advance.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on January 13, 2011:
Thank you amybradley. Lynda
amybradley77 on January 12, 2011:
This was so very wonderful to share, and again very inspiring to me for future hubpages, really great work here!! Voted up! A.B.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on November 24, 2010:
Thanks Amanda. I was surprised to hear sea minerals were so effective, having always thought it would be toxic to most plants -- but the secret appears to be in the dilution. Let us know how your experiment works. Lynda
Amanda Severn from UK on November 24, 2010:
Hi Lynda, I wonder if the green-grey waters of the English Channel would prove as nutritious as Kevin's source? I must try a bucket or two when I'm planning my garden next year.
This whole article is very inspiring, especially when you are as limited on growing room as we are. Thanks for this excellent hub. Genius.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on November 24, 2010:
My thought, too. This could be done anywhere the sunshines. Thanks for your comment. Lynda
compellingcarl from small town upstate New York on November 23, 2010:
I could only imagine the potential for the use of this efficiency of growth for urban gardening. Great article, fascinating story.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on August 04, 2010:
HI Sirel, I'm sure the technology applies to just about anywhere. Lynda
sirel on August 04, 2010:
wow the stuff you are in is really awesome .. hope we could also embrace the same in our own land ...
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on June 09, 2010:
Hi Gramerye -- nice to hear from you as always. Why can't you do this at home?
gramarye from Adelaide - Australia on June 09, 2010:
Great hub, I think this is a great way to grow food. Wish I could do some of this at home.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on May 12, 2010:
Yes, Deborah, it is an interesting idea and could lead to increased food production -- if humanity can get their act together. Thanks for the comment. Namaste.
Deborah Demander Reno from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on May 12, 2010:
This idea is revolutionary. It could impact the way food is grown all over the world. What a great mind he has. Thanks Lynda for sharing this with us. Hopefully, it will spread.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on May 12, 2010:
Hi Lorriejd -- you'd best address these issue to Kevin and his email is available from his farmsite link given in the article. I'm sure he'd love to discuss his operation with you. Pleased to meet another neighbor. Lynda
Lorriejd on May 12, 2010:
Very interesting hub!! I'm just around the corner in Punta Gorda. I just bought the Hydro-Stacker from Hydro Taste. I have not yet set it up. I sell Non-Hybrid Survival Vegetable Seeds and wanted to try them out using Hydopontics. Does Kevin sell his Vegetables at the Punta Gorda Farmers Market? Its every Saturday 8a.m to 1pm downtown Punta Gorda. Does he offer tours? I would love to go and see his farm.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on May 12, 2010:
Hi Danielle -- seeing as your so close perhaps the way to go is to take your husband to Kevin's farm so he can see for himself. (And I'm only one block away -- how about that?)
Danielle on May 11, 2010:
Actually lmmartin I am in Venice, close enough for sure. Been doing alot of reading and research these past few days and I am seriously considering getting the Hydro-Stacker starter system. We have done the dirt garden in the past and have not had much success. Lots of time and money spend with little reward. Now to convince my husband this is the way to go!
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on May 11, 2010:
Yes it is a bonus, Tammy. It's wonderful to obtain such great tasting natural food easily -- and only one block away. I'm told the eggplants, tomatoes and peppers are next up. Thanks for your comment.
Tammy Lochmann on May 10, 2010:
Very interesting and the pictures are great. No one thinks too much about organic food here. I am pretty conscious of it. There is only one co-op here and then the farmers market but the market still grows genetically modified stuff and it's not so fresh in the supermarket. How cool is it that you can buy unmodified organic food so close and so fresh.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on May 10, 2010:
Glad you enjoyed, loveofnight.
loveofnight from Baltimore, Maryland on May 10, 2010:
cracking write-up, very informative.....this is something that i would like to give a go.
thx 4 share
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on May 09, 2010:
Thanks itakins, for the comment and good wishes to Kevin and Afra.
itakins from Irl on May 09, 2010:
Extremely interesting hub-I was always a little dubious about vegetables grown by this method-but you've done a great job explaining it all.Rated and shared-and the best of luck to Kevin and Afra with this venture.
Patti Ann from Florida on May 08, 2010:
Wow - I am very impressed! I rated this hub up. There is nothing better than fresh veggies from the garden - and with this you don't need much space. Thanks so much for sharing this!
Rafini from Somewhere I can't get away from on May 07, 2010:
What an interesting way to grow a garden! Or is it a farm? A vegetable patch? All of the above? Whichever the case, I wonder if I can find anyone here uses this kind of system....probably not. But you say I can do a one or two stacker easily? I might try it...
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on May 07, 2010:
Oh my -- a day away and look how backed up I am.
Hi billyaustindillon, and thanks for your comment. Yes, lots of good ideas and do visit Kevin's site or contact him if you have questions.
Hi Hello, hello - thanks for coming by. Yes, I've learned a lot from Kevin. Glad you found some useful ideas here.
Hi Gus -- yes, this guy has lots of ideas; one of those fellas that barely finishes telling you about one thing and he's off to another.
Hi Swan of war -- Yes, the plants are so vividly alive but nothing beats the fragrance and taste. Delicious.
Hi JannyC -- no he's not the only one, just the one doing so less than a quarter mile from me here in Florida. Ths system is perfect for home gardens as well as commercial operations. You can be set up with 80 growing pockets for under $400 U.S. Or a one or two stacker for an apartment balcony for much less. Now there's a thought.
Hi E. Nicolson -- trust me, the taste of the produce I've had so far has been incomparable to store bought. In fact, when I have to buy from the store, I feel cheated. Not the same. Did I mention he cuts the greens with roots attached so you can place them in water and keep them alive until you eat them?
Hi Danielle -- Can I assume you're from the Charlotte Harbor/North Port area? Glad to be of help.
Danielle on May 07, 2010:
I am so excited to find a local organic hydro farm, thank you!
E. Nicolson on May 07, 2010:
As a gardener for many years I have often wondered about the hydroponic system. The taste of home grown food is unsurpassed. I never realised how wonderful a tomato could taste until I grew my own. Thanks for an informative Hub.
JannyC on May 07, 2010:
Fascinating wow. He is the only one to be growing and farming like this? Are others catching in in this way of farming? Is it expensive to do? Oh sorry for all the questions just find it fascinating.
SwanofWar from In My Imagination on May 07, 2010:
I tell you, healthy, green plants sure do look beautiful :D
Gustave Kilthau from USA on May 07, 2010:
Good Morning, Lynda - This was a fun and useful article. The contraptions Kevin came up with showed his ingenuity. Yes, your 500 bucks will be a great investment. You have great luck in that opportunity.
Back in '49 in plant physiology class we partnered in an experiment with hydroponics to grow tree seedlings. We used different chemical concentrations as plant food to see what the changes in them would do. Answer - a whole lot. Kevin has evidently found the perfect mix with those sea mineral salts. You may want to tell him that your friend, Gus, has a suggestion he may want to consider - mine lots of those minerals and build an operation to package and market them - not so much for farming but for the huge number of customers who might take to them for growing stuff in pots around the house - and maybe to duplicate his own setup as well, but all over the country. Those packages would be a natural for Internet sales. Can you see the "kits" already? A pack of "mined" sea minerals, a little envelope with pH paper, some epsom salts and some baking soda, plus the little instruction booklet or, even better, a ten-cent CD.
You have all the fun!
Hello, hello, from London, UK on May 07, 2010:
Hello, Lynda, and you really done this time. It is incredible. Where all you roam? It gives me a lot of thought - not farming - but in my own garden to maximise it a bit more. Thank you for a wonderful read. It was right up my street.
billyaustindillon on May 07, 2010:
A great hub about one heck of a garden - Some great ideas here to replicate this with ours - thanks for sharing.
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on May 07, 2010:
Good question, and come to think of it I've never seen any in this area. I'll look up the question and get back to you. No deer, but plenty rabbits and a gazillion bugs. Not to forget the wild pigs -- occasionally you come across one in the woods around us -- along with bobcats (seen a few of those.) Back later with your answer.
Ronnie Sowell from South Carolina on May 06, 2010:
Great hub. Are there no deer in Florida? They eat everything here, except beagles!
lmmartin (author) from Alberta and Florida on May 06, 2010:
Nan -- thanks for your comment. Actually, growing like this is not that hard on a household level, and Kevin is a pioneer of sorts in the mini-farm approach. Thanks again. Lynda
Hi Quill -- Sustainable small space agriculture like this is definitely the way of the future. I hope one day to put a small version in my own back yard. Four stackers would produce enough vegetables for our household at a cost of around $400 U.S. Not bad. Those experimenting like Kevin will find the way for the rest of us. Thanks for coming by. Lynda
Hi BKCreative, I knew this would be of interest to you. These systems are now so efficient, city dwellers -- even those in Brooklyn -- can grow fresh food for themselves, even if the only space they have available is an apartment balcony. The future beckons and it is tasty. Lynda
Hi Nellieanna, first, calm yourself. Kevin uses mined mineral salts from dried sea beds so his supply of marine salts is not threatened by the terrible oil slick still threatening us out there on the gulf. (And I just spent the day on the beach with my granddaughter visiting from Canada and thought about exactly all that is at stake here) Thanks so much for commenting. I would love to know more about George and his gardening methods. Perhaps you should write a hub and share them with us. Lynda
Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on May 06, 2010:
My beloved George started small-space gardening before it was even known and he devised many special growing environments. He would have been so enthusiastic about Kevin's methods!
I'm way landward from any sea-water, though. And now my heart is sad for Kevin, in case the awful oilslick - unless, perchance, the level for collecting the seawater nutrients. I certainly would hope so.
BkCreative from Brooklyn, New York City on May 06, 2010:
Oh this is so wonderful! I was waiting patiently. I am looking forward to retiring and leaving the city and heading South and high on the list is land and growing real food - it's been too long.
This is so well laid out - so well planned, and the idea of finally having some locally grown papaya - excellent!
I'm going to bookmark this because it will be my source of reference. Rated waaay up!!!
"Quill" on May 06, 2010:
Morning immartin, very interesting hub as I have researched this a few times over the years as an alternate to store bought stuff we know nothing about. Fancy packaging will tell you nothing of the growing method, what has been used to enhance it product or what it all contains.
People just trust and when you look at the stats in regards to the illness we see in people you can not help but wonder. Here in Alberta crops can be desiccated with Roundup and harvested and delivered to be used in cereals after ten days. Residue is still present but they are allowed into the food chain. Higher and higher rates of prostate and breast cancers have been linked to these sorts of practices. We do need alternative as we are killing off people faster and faster with what is being allowed. Hats off to this fellow for doing his homework.
Blessings and Hugs
Nan on May 06, 2010:
Excellent, and I wish we all had a chance to eat our vegetables grown in this manner. It is hard to do and requires a lot of patience. If we purchase our vegetables in the store we have to have our immune system able to fight off the germs.