Water Conservation, Passion for Great Food and Sustainability Fuel Family’s Foray into Hydroponics
February 27, 2013 | Abbie Stutzer
A simple passion for great tasting food and sustainability fueled the founding of Amelia’s Farm, a hydroponic farm based in Bells, Texas. Amelia Von Kennel, co-founder and executive vice president, and Ben Von Kennel, co-founder and chief executive officer, established the Farm in October 2011. The couple sold their house in Dallas, Texas, and moved their family ranch to Bells, Texas. Since the move, the Von Kennel’s focus has concerned strengthening the Amelia’s Farm brand, and building a 6,000 square-foot, commercial, hydroponic greenhouse. The Farm grows pesticide-free, non-GMO produce all year round.
I recently had a conversation with Amelia Von Kennel. She discussed how the couple started farming, why she and Ben value healthy food and how the Farm stays sustainable.
Seedstock: What’s the Farm’s (and your and Ben’s) story?
Amelia Von Kennel: Our passion for food started long ago. Ben spent some time in upstate New York at a culinary school. And growing up, I learned how to cook from my mother, who was a professional chef in New York. I also worked at several fine-dining restaurants during my undergrad studies. Because of our culinary experiences, our appreciation for good food expanded beyond a consumer viewpoint. I now spend my free time experimenting with recipes (as I am gluten-free and prefer to cook with local/sustainably grown/raised food) and learning more about the science of food. Over the years, we became more than foodies. We realized we wanted to be a part of the solution and bring fresh, healthy food to North Texas.
While working at various Dallas advertising agencies, Ben and I both dreamed of self-employment and finding a way to highlight our collective skills towards a company that focused on a healthy and positive lifestyle. At the end of the day, we wanted to feel we were doing something meaningful for ourselves and the people around us. We began researching several food industry concepts (restaurants, small neighborhood markets) and realized we should focus our efforts on the family-ranch property and become a direct distributor of fresh food.
Seedstock: What do you grow on the farm?
Amelia Von Kennel: Currently we grow a variety of tomatoes and basil in our greenhouse, but are in the process of planting additional vine produce (zucchini, squash, peppers) and some lettuce/micro-green varieties. We are also researching logistics on adding livestock to the property as you can grow grass/alfalfa/etc. hydroponicly for feed.
Seedstock: Why did the farm decide to embrace hydroponics?
Amelia Von Kennel:We have never been a ‘traditional’ farm. Before we built our commercial greenhouse, this property was a family weekend getaway. We did not have any ‘farm’ experience prior to this adventure. We attended a grower’s seminar in Ohio and read extensively on the topic. We first learned about the technology and benefits of hydroponics from a good friend who built a commercial hydroponic greenhouse in Waxahachie, Texas, and actually helped him on occasion to seed/harvest in his greenhouse, so I guess we had a little experience.
As we further researched commercial hydroponics, (as Texas was about to experience extreme drought issues), the water conservation and ability to grow year-round in a controlled environment were benefits we believed to be extremely important to the food industry. Because the greenhouse is a controlled environment no chemical pesticides need to be used and soil-borne diseases can be avoided.
Seedstock: What are the details of the farm’s hydroponic system?
Amelia Von Kennel: The structure is customized for the structure size we wanted and the Texas weather. It contains four industrial fans and a ‘wet wall’ that will turn on and cool the greenhouse as specific temperatures are detected. The computerized system feeds and waters the plants on a timed schedule specified for our plant varieties. On the occasional chilly, Texas winter night, there is also a heating system that ensures the greenhouse is a consistent temperature for optimal plant growth.
Seedstock: How much did the hydroponic operation cost to set up?
Amelia Von Kennel: Commercial hydroponics is a pricier start-up as opposed to other ‘traditional’ growing methods. If you start from scratch and want a state-of-the art structure, it will cost well into six figures. I’m sure there are several cheaper options, but we didn’t want to cut any corners with our company.
Seedstock: What types of sustainable practices do you use on the Farm?
Amelia Von Kennel: We conserve water (hydroponics uses up to 1/10 of water needed for field produce), have a rain collection system and well water that is filtered through a reverse osmosis system. We have plans to add solar/wind in the near future. We are pesticide-free and use beneficial insects (i.e. ladybugs, spiders, etc.) to handle any pests that sneak into the greenhouse. We also use bumblebees to pollinate.
Seedstock: What challenges do you face on the farm?
Amelia Von Kennel: Logistics are a challenge, as we would like to be closer to the highway because we also handle the distribution of our products. Construction of the greenhouse structure was also a challenge as many contractors were unfamiliar with some of the commercial/hydroponic greenhouse details, but we were able to find solutions while providing work to several independent contractors in North Texas.
Seedstock: What’s your opinion on the role that hydroponics and/or indoor agriculture can play in sustainably feeding a population?
Amelia Von Kennel: We feel we are a part of a growing movement in sustainable agriculture. As the climate continues to change (the drought continues in Texas) and our population increases, urban farming practices and hydroponics will have to play a larger role in the food industry to support the demand in both rural and urban settings. A growing trend of people are now actively educating themselves on food nutrition and the importance of supporting sustainable locally grown and raised food. These consumers will force the food industry to adapt to more sustainable growing methods.