Visit Kevin Newell's Hydroponic Organic Vegetable Farm
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.