Competition from the North Pushes Resourceful Rhode Island Hydroponic Farmer to Downsize and Diversify
February 8, 2013 | Helen Weatherall
A job done right looks easy. Likewise Swiss chard that has celebrated five birthdays and boasts a girth of six inches looks normal at Mark Phillips’ Absalona Greenhouse Farm in Chepachet, Rhode Island. Twenty years now in the business of hydroponic farming, Phillips has mastered the art of soil-free growing. Of his accumulated knowledge what he didn’t learn from his plants themselves he mostly learned from listening to his gut rather than to opinions of others.
“I fell into it. I didn’t think I was going to work for myself,” said Phillips who earned an environmental studies degree in college. Unbeknownst to him his career was set in motion the day he took a job at a greenhouse the summer after graduating. But he took to the work and in 1990 decided to go into business for himself.
“I figured I’m good at it, I could work for myself and bring my dog,” he began. “But I didn’t know it was going to be like this,” he added telling of how the success he eventually achieved wreaked havoc on his life.
“In 2003 I was doing everything right but it wasn’t working.”
The reason in large part was NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement). Its passage Phillips explained meant that Canadian growers with access to cheap energy could easily undercut him. To satisfy the demands of his clients, Bread & Circus (now Whole Foods) and Super Stop & Shop, he pushed the limits of three greenhouses to produce 3,000 heads of lettuce a week.
“I was getting up in the middle of the night to pick heads by hand,” Phillips recalled.
“It was a lot of stress. I had to stay within the ballpark of what (Canadian growers) were doing.” Despite its high productivity – or because of it- Phillips’ farming enterprise that produced a monocrop of the highest quality Boston lettuce was unsustainable.
Rather than hit the wall Phillips put a heavy foot on the brakes. Quitting he realized wasn’t an option since all of his money was tied up in the greenhouses and the unique hydroponic system he had built and finessed to peak performance. So he resisted hauling it all away on an eighteen-wheeler and opted to take a radically different tack. He downsized and diversified. Phillips cut down from three greenhouses to one and said goodbye to lettuce- at least as a cash cow.
Fortunately it was 2003, a time when increasingly the issue of food security was showing up in headlines and people were giving more thought to where their food comes from. In 2004 with the establishment of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a non-profit with a mission to connect local farmers with consumers to improve public health and the health of the environment, Phillips got onboard. He hauled his harvest to a farmers market.
More comfortable wearing a Patriots hat and boots than say a bandana and Birkenstocks, Phillips at first felt like a fish out of water. But once he caught his stride and customers discovered his lush basil, arugala and other greens, he never looked back. Forever a perfectionist he maintained his insistence on delivering top-notch quality while adapting to his newfound culture. In selling at Coastal Growers Farmers Market in Saunderstown, Rhode Island on Saturdays from May through October, as well as at Aquidneck farmers market up the road in Newport, another in Pawtucket, Phillips displays one or two non-edible items of merchandise under his tent.
“I have shirts,” he said laughing as if still astonished at the thought.
“They have a Grateful Dead skeleton farmer on the front and on the back they’re printed with the words ‘Who’s Your Farmer?’”
In adapting to his new business model Phillips swung 180 degrees from what he had been doing. Whereas a glance inside of his greenhouses once revealed two shades of green – the true green of Boston Lettuce and the dark, slightly blue green of Italian basil – these days Phillips’ greenhouse holds a rich array of colors. Red however is lacking, as Phillips rates tomatoes as not worth the trouble. He views spinach and anything of the cabbage family similarly as not worth the effort. As a whole the cabbage family is “a bug magnet” and spinach is simply “a pain in the butt”, as for okra “it didn’t work,” he said. The greens and herbs growing in his greenhouse are those of gourmet persuasion like mizuna, watercress, tatsoi, peppercress, cilantro, chervil, lemon balm, arugula, fennel, sorrel, bok choy, swiss chard, and kale.
“Some people bring me seeds from their gardens,” said Phillips who asserts that he’s willing to try anything different. By being responsive and thoroughly committed Phillips has garnered a following of 200 or so loyal customers. They seek him out even as his prices exceed those of other growers. After building and rebuilding his greenhouses, installing a heating system, rebuilding an oil heater, and learning electrical wiring because he had to – all with some coaching and eager assistance from his father – Phillips is unabashedly proud of his product and unapologetic about his pricing. Regardless his goods have no trouble selling.
When the talk turns to money Phillips is unflinching.
“I don’t make a lot of money,” he readily volunteered. But he is at the top of his game and has been for some time. Of hydroponics he says, “Anybody can do it”.
“There used to be six hydroponic growers (in Rhode Island). But they got hammered by Canada. People try and then they stop.”
“I learned everything the hard way. I was living cheap,” he said of his success. Now, he explained, people copy his system. In fact his unique system arrived at after much trial and error and tweaking draws a great deal of attention from various entities including the University of Rhode Island.
The intensity of interest eventually got to Phillips who finally put an end to it. But while it could be said that he is not forthcoming with the finer details of his customized hydroponic system, he is not ungenerous with his know-how. One way he shares is by teaching a class in Jamestown, Rhode Island funded by a grant from NASA for the purpose of promoting careers in science.
Asked about the benefits of hydroponic growing versus conventional soil-based farming and about the benefits of hydroponics with regard to sustainability Phillips offers several points. One is that insects are more manageable with hydroponic growing.
“I make sure I don’t get ‘em,” he said putting it simply.
“Pick what you can and move on,” he added elaborating on how he handles bugs on his cucumbers.
“(And) I power wash. People freak-out, Kale (for instance), I just wash ‘em down.”
Similarly chemicals are less of an issue with hydroponic growing Phillips explained. Because of the physical way in which he manages insects Phillips is able to avoid the use of chemical pesticides altogether. And by design a hydroponic growing system functions sustainably.
“Everything is recycled, there’s no storage. (Hydroponics) use less water than conventional, it’s all recycled. All my fertilizer is recycled. It’s a closed system,” explained Phillips.
And of course hydroponic greenhouse systems offer the tremendous benefit of extending the growing season. In Absalona’s early years Phillips typically shut down the operation in December and restarted in March. No longer, now Phillips keeps his operation going all year round.
I have five-year-old swiss chard. They’re already bonsai. I have arugula that I have cut 20 times. That’s how I afford to grow,” said Phillips explaining that in the coldest months of December through February the plants go dormant. Come spring however they are all set to take off in the lengthening daylight.
Just as NAFTA-aided competition once threatened Absalona Greenhouse Farm so success and a stellar reputation now pose a potential threat to its future. Interest in urban agriculture is taking off and as interest builds so too does demand for Phillips’ expertise. Someone wants to install a vertical garden on the face of a skyscraper in Seattle and wants Phillips to head up the project.
“Show me the money,” is Phillips’ response. “You’d have to pay me a lot of money.” After investing $30,000 in Absalona’s first greenhouse, $40,000 in a second that took two years to build, and other immeasurable costs, Phillips is unable or unwilling to put a value on his farm or what it would cost to get him to leave it behind.