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Growing Up Hydroponically – Practical Motives Drive Family Strawberry Farm to Increase Sustainability

May 25, 2012 |

Strawberry farmers must contend with numerous challenges from supplying plants with just the right amount of water to fending off numerous soil-borne pests. Coupling the plant’s innate sensitivity with staunch environmental regulations, it can be difficult for growers to balance sustainability and crop health. Temecula Valley Strawberry Farms (TVSF), though, has found a solution to sustainably and profitably grow strawberries using a unique vertical hydroponic system that benefits the environment and the local community without sacrificing yields.

Based in Temecula, California, Temecula Valley Strawberry Farms (TVSF) is run by the Fietz family consisting of Ken Sr., Ken Jr. and Ken III. The family has been farming strawberries for three generations in the area, and up until recently employed conventional soil-based growing practices that use many of the fumigants and pesticides common to the crop. Things, however, took a turn toward sustainability once Ken Fietz III learned about a new hydroponic growing technology.

Soil Struggles and Solutions

According to Ken Fietz III, up until the decision to grow with hydroponics, the family consistently profited from growing strawberries in the traditional manner. They sold their conventionally grown berries both to local casinos and at farm-stands. However, TVSF struggled with many of the soil-borne stressors and pests that vex strawberry farmers nation-wide. To combat pests TVSF routinely had to use chemical protectants, including the ozone depleting fumigant methyl bromide.

As background, growers apply methyl bromide to soils prior to seeding as a means of killing soil dwelling pests that threaten crops. In 1987, however, methyl bromide came under fire with the establishment of the Montreal Protocol treaty to protect the ozone layer. The fumigant was identified as an ozone depleting substance (ODS), and a provision was added to the Protocol mandating that farmers phase it out. (Since 2005, the EPA has maintained a 100% phase out of methyl bromide – except for allowable exemptions such as critical use exemptions agreed to by the Montreal Protocol Parties). Ken Fietz III explained that eliminating or switching fumigants is a complex challenge whose management requires a deep understanding on the part of the grower of interrelated factors such as soil type, slope and groundwater presence.

Thus, Fietz III through himself into the search to find a workaround solution to manage the family’s strawberry crop without methyl bromide. It was while working on his degree in Agricultural Business at California State University Chico in 2004/05 that Fietz III first learned about Florida-based Vertigro, a pioneer in hydroponic growing systems. After several trips to Florida to investigate the technology further, the Fietzes made the decision to install a Vertigro system that would accommodate 10,000 plants. After some early success the family expanded the system.

The outdoor Vertigro system that TVSF implemented consists of rows of vertically stacked pots that are insulated to control root temperature and protect the strawberry plants from extreme temperatures. The system’s verticality allows for TVSF to increase plant density and production in a very small amount of space.

Set-up, Savings, and Sustainability

To set up the system it cost TVSF approximately $33,000 upfront to set up a well-water system and the hydroponic infrastructure necessary to accommodate the Vertigro system. Now in its third year of growing hydroponically, TVSF has seen immense overall savings in water, space, and labor. Perhaps most importantly, the farm has been able to completely eliminate its use of methyl bromide and other chemical fumigants.

Vertical hydroponic growing setup at Temecula Valley Strawberry Farms (TVSF). Photo: TVSF

Asked whether the farm was organic, Ken Fietz III explains, “we’re not organic, but we’re moving in that direction. You have to walk before you can run, but we are definitely in the beginning phases of a major transition.”

He says the system has made it possible, though, for the farm to measurably decrease its pesticide applications from once every other week, to two or three times during the entire growing season.

“Sustainability is a major motivation for me,” says Ken Fietz III. “My dad is more nuts and bolts, more old school farming. After going to school, I have a bigger picture of the water issue in Southern California. With this new system we have no runoff and have drastically reduced water use. We have nearly eliminated the need for sprays, and stopped using fumigants completely.”

While yields with the Vertigro vertical hydroponic system do not yet match the 3 lbs per plant that the farm reaped with traditional soil grown strawberries, the higher plant density permitted by the vertical growing system has enabled the Fietzes to more than make up for this shortfall by allowing them to grow more plants in a smaller amount of space. Using Vertigro, the Fietzes are able to situate nearly 50,000 plants on one acre, whereas ground growing only allows for 18,000-20,000 plants per acre of land.

Fietz III says that the system also enables the farm to reduce its labor costs as less ground preparation is required prior to the start of the growing season.

Challenges

Despite benefits from the new system, Fietz III says that the family still struggles with water supply and high salt-content. Temecula Valley Strawberry Farms operates off of a well, and while implementing a hydroponic system has allowed the family to reduce the farm’s water needs, it has also made it more difficult to manage the salt capacity of the water in lower pots. With strawberries being a very salt-sensitive crop, the maintenance of salinity is an ongoing challenge that confronts the Fietz family.

Maintaining the nutrient balance of the soil with hydroponics has also proved tricky, though not debilitating, says Fietz III. “We’re learning quickly about plant physiology and soil chemistry.”

U-Pick

TVSF implementation of the Vertigro hydroponic system has also enabled the family for the first time to implement a U-Pick business model. Initially, the Fietz family intended to operate their strawberry farm as a purely commercial enterprise, continuing to sell to local casinos and via farm stands. However, the awe and excitement of visitors elicited by the high tech, vertical hydroponic system inspired the Fietzes to try a new approach to sales.

“People who came to the farm would mention how user-friendly and clean the system was,” says Ken Fietz III. “You’re standing, the berries are accessible, and the plants are incredibly healthy. So, based on this feedback, we decided to open U-Pick in March.”

TVSF invites customers to pick their own berries on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the growing season, which runs from March until August. With a strong community, educational and family attraction, U-Pick has been an economically successful program for the farm; it also serves to reinforce the connection between farmer and consumer.

Overall, Temecula Valley Family Farms has experienced success with hydroponic growing. In addition to finding a solution to get around using soil fumigants, the Fietz family has maintained profitability, reduced overhead costs, diversified their enterprise and created a more sustainable and environmentally friendly farm.

“The practical fit with the sustainable in switching to this system,“ says Fietz III.

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