Despite Economic Hurdles and Learning Curve, Family’s Hydroponic / Aquaponic Enterprise Turns Profit
August 21, 2012 | Missy Smith
For Brenda Anderson and her family, growing food is just as much about feeding and empowering their local community as it is about making a living. About 11 years ago, the family set out to start farming at the request of Anderson’s son Joshua. So, Anderson purchased a 22-acre ranch in Houston, Texas, and settled in with her family. And, about four years ago, the family—consisting of Anderson’s fiancé Jeff Koch, her sister and her two nieces—started VegOut! Farms, a hydroponic and aquaponic farm that grows organic and traditional produce for its local community.
Every year, VegOut! Farms produces about 94,000 pounds of beefsteak tomatoes in their three quarter acre hydroponic farm. They also grow cucumbers, eggplants and peppers hydroponically. Within their 3,000-square-foot aquaponic farm, VegOut! Farms produces organic lettuce and herbs, as well as fresh tilapia. In addition, squash, peppers and melons are grown within a large media bed; and, onions, beets and carrots are grown in vertical towers.
VegOut! Farms strives to use as many organic practices as possible, says Anderson. They use compost beds that help support the soil. They do not use fungicides or pesticides on the hydroponic farm, as the lack of any weeds or pests in the controlled environment greenhouse makes such inputs unecessary. They refrain from spraying chemicals on their soil gardens and only utilize beneficial insects such as ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps and BT proteins to maintain a natural and organic approach to farming. Sustainability is also at the forefront of VegOut! Farms’ operation. “All the water we use for the hydroponics is sprayed out onto our pasture, where we raise meat and show goats. We don’t waste anything. Fish waste is dissolved in the water. And, anything we flush off is dried and put into our soil bed. There’s nothing that we don’t use,” Anderson says.
Though VegOut! Farms has honed in on strong business and farming techniques, the operation is not without challenges. First and foremost, the economic hurdles have presented some challenges for their business. “It’s tough to find people to loan you money,” she explains. “If you don’t have land or equity already, it’s really tough for anyone to find money.” In addition, running a farm is also a learning process. “There is a learning curve. It’s not easy,” says Anderson. “Labor is tough. You have to really be willing to put in long hours, in addition to having a great banker, business plan and really sound business sense. It’s not just playing in the soil.”
Despite these challenges, VegOut! Farms is enjoying some success. “We are really happy to have made a profit this past year,” says Anderson. “Organic farming is tough, and I’ve seen too many people fail. It’s not something you can do overnight. It takes a lot of education, practice and hard work. Most of the students that come and do internships don’t want to work this hard. Farming is not easy. But, if you love farming, growing your own food and educating people, then it’s not a job. Then you can work those 10-,12-, 14-hour days. If you’re lucky enough to be profitable, that’s just a bonus.”
In addition to supplying the H-E-B supermarket chain (their main buyer) and farmers’ markets with fresh produce, the family also reaches out to people in their community to spread the word on home gardening. “We are advocates for education,” says Anderson. “Anyone can grow their own food. There is no reason for anyone to go hungry.”
This October, VegOut! Farms will offer hydroponic, aquaponic and soil culture classes, as well as farm tours, in conjunction with Houston Community College, in Katy, Texas, where Koch is head of the agriculture department, a position Anderson previously held.
Looking ahead, VegOut! Farms has many goals in place, including building another three-quarter acre greenhouse next year and offering pick-your-own berries. “We also want people to come to the farm and take part in free hands-on learning opportunities. There are a lot of things we’d like to do to grow our facility, and we have the space to do it.”