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Mud-filled Lake in Michigan Inspires Couple’s Leap into Hydroponic Farming

Mud-filled Lake in Michigan Inspires Couple’s Leap into Hydroponic Farming

March 4, 2013 |

Photo Credit: Mud Lake Farm.

It was the mud-filled lake on Steve Van Haitsma’s century-old family farmland in Ottawa County, Michigan that made him realize he wanted to do things differently.

“The lake was once deep and held sturgeon,” says Kris Van Haitsma’s, Steve’s wife.  “It had filled in with topsoil over the years from all of the farms around it.”

The Van Haitsmas were college sweethearts wanting a life off the beaten path when they started looking for a way to farm without harming the soil, and seized upon hydroponics. They bought their first used greenhouse in 2005, assembled it on the property while both working jobs elsewhere, and began their journey building a do-it-yourself hydroponic operation. And so Mud Lake Farm was born.

Mud Lake Farm features a deep-water culture hydroponic system. Plants grow in foam sheets floating on constructed ponds in greenhouses, heated primarily with a geothermal system, which heats the water in the beds, as well as by biomass furnaces, which heat the air. A mix of wood pellets, local corn, and Michigan cherry pits fuels the biomass furnace. Pumps circulate and oxygenate the water in the beds, and a nutrient mix is added to the water. Much of the greenhouses were built using reclaimed materials, and the hydroponic system was designed and built by the Van Haitsmas.

“Nothing is off the shelf,” says Kris. “We are low budget, and through a lot of Internet research and trial and error, we’ve found a system that works for our family.”

No chemicals or pesticides are used on the farm. Insects are used to keep aphid populations at bay; praying mantises have colonized the greenhouses, and the Van Haitsmas plant ladybugs and lacewing larvae every year to ward off pests.

The farm’s main products include over 40 varieties of lettuces and microgreens, including Asian green like bok choy, red and green romaine, butter lettuce, and Batavia. The Van Haitsmas also harvest and sell stinging nettles, which grow wild on the property and are a nutritious green (they must be cooked or dried before being eaten to remove the stingers). The couple also raises roasting chickens and pigs.

The Van Haitsmas installed an approximately $20,000 geothermal system in 2010, by far their largest expense, allowing them to expand the operation to a second greenhouse and to grow fresh greens throughout the cold Michigan winters. Mud Lake Farms operates a month-to-month CSA, supplies a local cooperative and delivers to area coffee shops, grocers, and restaurants. The Van Haitsmas also tithe 10% of their harvests to local charities and those in need. A second geothermal system and third greenhouse was added in 2012.

Electricity costs are limited to the pumping operations, which, while critical, will not spell certain death to the crop if they fail, as would happen in a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) system, which relies on water pumps to maintain a constant flow of water below the plant root systems.

“We’ve gone away to Florida for spring break with no worries,” says Kris.

The Van Haitsmas made an attempt to pilot an aquaponic system to grow lettuces and tilapia together in 1,000-gallon tanks. An aquaponic system is a method of simultaneously growing plants and fish, creating a closed loop with no external inputs.  In an aquaponic system, nutrient-rich wastewater from the fish is pumped to the plants, providing fertiizer, and the plants clean and oxygenate the water before it is re-circulated back to the fish.

Lettuces growing in one of the greenhouses at Mud Lake Farm. The farm utilizes a deep-water culture hydroponic system. Plants grow in foam sheets floating on constructed ponds in greenhouses, heated primarily with a geothermal system, which heats the water in the beds. Photo Credit: Mud Lake Farm.

Unfortunately, the Van Haitsmas met with very limited success- the tilapia do supply nutrients to lettuce beds, but have never grown to a salable size in appreciable numbers. They plan to keep the fish tank as an educational attraction for visitors to the farm, and will sell the fingerlings to others hoping to establish aquaponic systems.

“I don’t see us converting to aquaponics in the future,” says Kris.

Growing salad greens during the cold northern winters, in the heart of Michigan’s western snow belt, presents challenges every year, according to Kris.

“Something always goes wrong, and we lose time,” she says. “If we spent more money on backup systems, like a propane system for backup heat, we could avoid some issues,” she says.

Another challenge is predicting the market, which can be fickle. “Knowing what and how much to grow is always challenge,” she says.

The Van Haitsmas would like to install a renewable power source, such as wind turbines or solar panels, to run the pumps, but cost thus far has been prohibitive.  The farm revenues just cover expenses, and the family is able to pay its bills.

“We make a living,” says Kris.

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