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Hydroponics Paying Off for Michigan’s McWethy Farms

The Tomato Magazine
August 2007

By Tracy Ilene Miller

In Three Oaks, Michigan, a family farm tapped technology and the effi ciency of hydroponics to avoid becoming a statistic — but not before the property changed hands and all was nearly lost
to the family. Nationwide, agricultural lands are lost at a rate of two acres every minute, mostly for the purpose of housing developments. But swimming against that tide are farmers like Todd McWethy of McWethy Farms, who returned home to Michigan after a near 10-year educational journey that led him to hydroponics growing.

In 2001, the McWethy family bought back a little less than half of the 75-acre farm sold soon before Todd’s greatgrandpa died. Two years later, the modern-day McWethy Farms began in earnest and
has thrived under the management of Todd, who represents a new wave of farmers: hydroponics growers who are building on the momentum of small farms in the 1990s to supply at the local level
fi ne restaurants, natural foods stores and farmers markets with such fresh-tasting, high-quality fare as tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, cucumbers and peppers.

Hothouse tomatoes represent most of the hydroponics market and an estimated 17 percent of the U.S. fresh tomato supply — and that figure doesn’t include growers such as McWethy who are too small to be counted in these U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. Nevertheless, nearly 37 percent of all fresh tomatoes bought retail in the United States are grown in greenhouses, and that number is only increasing. And something else is increasing: Even in the wake of large farms losing ground, most regions of the country are seeing a rise in the number of niche farms of less than 10 and not more than 49 acres.

Some of the reasons include the nutritional benefi ts of eating tomatoes; the desire by consumers for more variety that has brought heirlooms back to the market; the surge in the demand for organically grown food; and the demand in fi ne restaurants for specialized, fresh produce. All these factors have spelled success for some smaller hydroponics greenhouse growers who are finding a niche supplying local markets with tasty, pesticide- and diseasefree vegetables.

But there is an environmental aspect as well to the pursuit of hydroponics growing. When a closed system of recycled water is used, hydroponics requires only 5-10 percent of the water used in field growing, which has led to large research projects in such arid states as Arizona and New Mexico. As well, the controlled set of nutrients fed to the plants means the produce itself can reflect nutrition provided in the fertilizer. For example, in one experiment, garlic enriched with selenium, a mineral important to cancer suppression, was produced with success and became a more valuable product.

And added value has become the basis for many small hydroponics growers — Todd McWethy included. McWethy came to hydroponics greenhouse growing by traveling a long round trip from Michigan to a program at the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology in Cobleskill to a capstone internship under the tutelage of Dr. Howard Resh in Anguilla, West
Indies. The CuisinArt Resort and Spa — and Resh — is known not only for its unprecedented (in the Caribbean) state-of-the art hydroponics farm but for the greenhouses themselves. When the resort owners fi rst thought of supplying their own produce, they knew they would only last the long-term if they had structures that could withstand the 150 mile per hour winds that pummeled the island during hurricane season.

It was on Anguilla, then, where McWethy fi rst encountered Agra Tech (Pittsburg, Calif.) greenhouses and then decided to install them for his own venture when he completed his roundtrip back to
his childhood stomping ground of southern Michigan. “Anguilla had two hurricanes, one of them that sat above the island the whole day, and the Agra Tech greenhouses survived them, which is what led me to buy them,” McWethy said. “I thought they were much beefi er than others I had seen.” But when McWethy headed back to Michigan in 2002, he would discover that not only natural disasters but human disasters, or error, can take a greenhouse down. Soon into the process of a local contractor installing a brand-new 10,000-square-foot greenhouse, McWethy began to have his doubts about the stability of the structure.

“The structure was partially assembled, and I became really leery about how things looked,” McWethy says. “The columns and trusses were in, but the walls were not true.” McWethy wanted to give the contractor the benefi t of the doubt, but before the concrete fl oor was poured, McWethy took a look and balked at continuing.

“I took a picture and sent it to Agra Tech,” McWethy says. “Within an hour, I had a response from John Pound, the owner, who basically said, ‘Don’t let that man back on your site.’” Agra Tech immediately sent out sales engineer Pat Coleman who found that the concrete was poured too fast and the columns weren’t set right.

“We put a level on the columns, and out of 50 columns, only
one was level,” Coleman says. “It was pretty obvious that the trusses were under stress, and the roof panels were under stress.” A number of solutions or fi xes were discussed, but the overall recommendation was to take the structure down and reset the columns. And McWethy was actually more comfortable with that idea than trying to make the existing, out-of-true columns work by
cutting and re-bolting them.

“I’m kind of a perfectionist,” McWethy says. “If I was going to build a greenhouse, I was going to build a good one.” And one that would stand up under warranty. Coleman says the new builder who stepped in was clever and was able to salvage the columns by scoring them and hitting the concrete just enough that the concrete fell off.

“They used every column over again,” Coleman says. Then, holes were augured in new locations, the columns reset and the trusses and polycarbonate installed perfectly. No more wavy walls, no more
curved roof. The entire re-building cost McWethy $70,000 and a delay of his startup by one season. But without the personal assistance offered by Agra Tech, McWethy says it would have cost a lot more. Agra Tech helped the new contractor sort the mess of parts the old contractor had left, as well as provided on-site visits, replacement parts at discounted prices, and a new set of engineered drawings.

The experience was a lesson to McWethy on how to assess contractors and a reminder of the value of customer service. Agra Tech has more than 8,000 engineered drawings that provide specifi c
information on everything from mounting doors to hanging vents to assembling trusses and attaching polycarbonate. There is also a hotline for answering questions available nine hours of the day.
At a minimum Coleman recommends if there is no experienced greenhouse builder available to at least get a fence company to set the columns level and square and an electrician experienced in
installing the controls specifi c to greenhouses.

Only three seasons have passed since McWethy Farms opened its fi rst greenhouse, but with Agra Tech’s assistance, Todd has doubled his sales and will now double his production space by installing a second greenhouse. He’s already pumping out 1,000 pounds of tomatoes a week, and he wants to increase his red beefsteak production as well as grow more heirlooms, lettuce and other greens and experiment with strawberries.

With his business — and his greenhouses — standing on solid ground, McWethy is prepared to make further inroads in hydroponics growing, content to be a small operation that pays attention to
detail and provides a superior tasting product while still offering the better shelf life, fl avor, and appearance of the large growers.

“My selling points are variety and fl avor,” McWethy says. Editor’s note: Tracy Ilene Miller is a freelance writer and journalism instructor at the University of Oregon and Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Ore. She can be reached at tmillerwriter@yahoo.com.

© 2007 Columbia Publishing

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