Ohio Farmer Leverages Hydroponic Solution to Extend Growing Season & Increase Revenue
December 19, 2012 | Missy Smith
Almost thirty years ago, Larry Klco and his wife Tina started Rainbow Farms, a family owned and operated business located in Madison, Ohio. To stay afloat while the couple started their farming business, Klco worked another job to pay the bills and to help the farm progress financially. Then, eleven years ago, when the company he managed closed it doors, Klco took the leap to become a full-time farmer.
In the early days of the farm, the Rainbow Farms grew pick-your-own strawberries, cantaloupes, watermelon, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, broccoli, cauliflower and pumpkins that they sold wholesale and at the lone farmers market in their area at the time, Willoughby Outdoor Farm Market.
Thirty years later, the couple still has its hands in the soil, growing more than 40 different fruits and vegetables (in more than 150 varieties) for its local community. And, the years have only increased Klco’s passion for farming. “I don’t do this for the money, that’s for darn sure. Farming involves long hours and small paychecks. You either love this or you find some other type of employment,” Klco says. “But, it’s what I love to do. It was a God-given talent to grow things.”
After reading an article in American Vegetable Grower about a Pennsylvania grower doing hydroponics, Klco decided he wanted to employ this farming technique at Rainbow Farms, in addition to its regular field farming. “I gave him a call, visited him, and he showed me what he was doing. We were previously harvesting strawberries in June, and by the end of October, we’d be done. For a small operation, we could not economically survive that way,” he says. After implementing its hydroponic system five years ago, Rainbow Farms now harvests food 12 months a year. “Hydroponics offer a season extension that you would never have otherwise,” Klco says. “I also think the crops have exceptional flavor. Our tomatoes aren’t field tomatoes but they’re pretty darn close.” And, he says, as long as bugs stay away from their greenhouses, the farm can turn around beautiful looking crops, with no blemishes.
Rainbow Farm’s custom-made hydroponic system is modeled after the Pennsylvania farmer’s Crop King setup. But, instead of buying new gutters that would have set the farm back between $4,000-$5,000, Klco built his own for $1,000, with PVC pipe that he drilled holes in at every eight inches. In addition, when one of Klco’s neighbors who retired from plant propagating, gave the farm three greenhouses, it gave the farm a big financial leg up. This only left them with having to pay for plastic, a furnace and watering system. “Even if I stopped growing today, I’m not out a bunch of dollars,” he says. “Our investment was mostly for a sewer and drainpipes. I have put in more labor than money.”
To sustainably grow the food on their farm, Rainbow Farms uses beneficial insects as much as possible and drip irrigation, which reduces energy costs and pollution, with the nutrients growing right under black plastic. The hydroponic farm also utilizes double cropping and cover cropping. In addition, Klco says they use organic pesticide for worm control in their broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. “I don’t call my stuff organic, but we could,” he explains. “We use biologicals to kill predators.”
Klco explains that the farm reuses containers for as long as possible. “We buy them from nurseries and use them until they fall apart,” he says. “When we sell to chefs, we use the same boxes. It’s just great, because you don’t have all of that trash generated.”
For Klco, one of the biggest challenges that the farm faces involves educating the public on how food is grown. “I think there are a lot of folks who don’t understand what it takes to grow, produce and harvest a quality end product that comes to your table,” he says, explaining that he believes organic versus non-organic food education is muddled. “There’s a lot of misinformation. People will ask about organic food. And, I’ll say, ‘No, I’m not organic, but here’s what I do,” Klco explains. “Ninety percent will listen and buy a product. The other 10 percent will look at you like the Evil Empire.”
Despite the food education challenge that comes along with their operation, Rainbow Farms keeps reaching for the sky. “We want to improve our retail sales, CSA sales and sales to chefs,” Klco explains. “We want to get more folks out to experience the farm with wagon rides and education in the agriculture industry. We see a future in that.” Rainbow Farms also hopes to expand its hydroponic operation and to include value-added products in its offerings. “Really, I see the sky as the limit,” he says. “There is a good movement out there: eating fresh and local is the right way to go. It’s the best value for your dollar, and the best nutritional value for families. Supporting local growers in the local community is good for everybody.”