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To Reduce Dependence on California-grown Produce, Washington State Couple Focuses on Hydroponics

January 15, 2013 |

Stewart and Cheryl Fry, owners of C&S Hydro-Huts, have a vision. The two hydroponic farmers, from Otis Orchards, Wash., want to reduce those truckloads of California-grown lettuce, peppers and tomatoes bound for the east side of the state. Both are long-time residents of Otis Orchards, a tiny rural community located a few miles west of the Idaho state line.

Their efforts are bearing fruit, as the couple have already succeeded in replacing 1,500 heads of California-grown lettuce a week with locally grown, greenhouse-produced butter-head lettuce.  Wholesalers distribute the company’s hydroponic produce to an assortment of local restaurants and produce markets. Wild Sage American Bistro, an award-winning Spokane restaurant, proved an early supporter of the couple’s efforts to make a dent in those interstate shipments of lettuce.

Since then, the local community has enthusiastically embraced the couple’s efforts, says Stewart Fry. The couple now plans to construct two tomato greenhouses in the spring, adding peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes to the company’s offerings.

The Frys first considered installing a greenhouse to cultivate flowers on the couple’s two-and-a-half-acre hobby farm over a decade ago. Yet, at that time, implementing such a change would have devalued the property, says Fry.

So, the couple set those plans aside, and chose to subsist on the income from their mini-storage facility, Big Bear Storage, along with fees collected from the clients of their in-home daycare business. In 2008, the two took a new direction, and purchased a hydroponic kit that consisted of two 22-foot by 136-foot hoops, connected to create a total growing area of 44 by 100 feet.

“Building it ourselves means we know the location and purpose of every pipe, tube, and wire in the system,” he says. The couple plans to add another hoop house in the spring, in order to satisfy their growing customer base. The Mom-and-Pop business also pays a high-school student to clean plant trays each week, and the couple provide the rest of the labor required.

The hydroponic system taps nutrient-rich water, which is dispersed through lines in the aisles that feed into a four-inch pipe. Recycled water is then returned back into the system. Fry says the benefits of such a system are many, when compared to the challenges of cultivating lettuce in soil.

For one, the threat of contamination is vastly reduced. Little if any application of pesticide is required. And, maintaining the system is easy, too, he says. Simply shut the hydroponic system down, and flush it with fresh water.

Fry estimates that the lettuce crop he produces uses one-tenth of the water required for an equivalent amount of field-grown lettuce. Each lettuce plant costs just 85 cents to grow, he says. I’ve grown a lot of different lettuces, but Butter-head seems to be the most popular and grows really well,” he says. “Year-round we do about 1,500 heads a week.”

The controlled growing conditions ensure each head of lettuce is virtually identical to the next one, whereas outdoor cultivation of lettuce would be pinched by Spokane’s short-growing season. Field lettuce also produces heads that can vary widely in both size and color. The consistency of his farm’s product is what makes it so appealing to local restaurateurs, he says.

“The water that nourishes our plants is recycled and reused, and before nutrient levels become unbalanced, we let the plants ‘drink down’ water in the reservoir to help empty it,” he says. The remaining water is then spread over an adjacent property. That’s a neighborly gesture, as moisture is very much appreciated in this high-desert landscape.

Fry says the couple recently achieved an economic milestone: The operation yielded its first financial returns. “Right now we’re selling out of everything,” Fry said. Demand for the perfectly formed heads of lettuce from local restaurateurs has been so brisk that the couple had to cut back on their deliveries to farmer’s markets.  They reduced those down from four farmers markets to just one in the City of Liberty Lake, which is located a very short distance from the farm.

“Our idea is to take that truck from California shipping lettuce off the road,” he says. “We don’t want to drive around from restaurant to restaurant, and grocery store to grocery store,” he says. “Now we’re distributing through Charlie’s Produce, Peirone Produce Company, and Food Service of America.”

He says turning over deliveries to the region’s produce suppliers reduces his own carbon footprint. That’s why it made sense to bundle his shipments in with the region’s existing delivery infrastructure.

Yet, there’s a fly in the ointment. The farming operation has yet to generate a sustainable income. Still, prospects are looking up, he says. In the meantime, income from BIG Bear Storage, LLC, a mini-storage facility the couple owns, gives the farming endeavor more time to grow. “We’re priming the business, trying to make it our total income,” he says.

Fry admits that supplying the region’s major produce suppliers comes with a tradeoff.  “We give up a certain percentage of profit that way, but it’s isn’t all about money to us. We’re about sustainability, and supplying the local economy.”

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