Decreased Land Availability, Growing Demand Lead VanScoy Farms of Ohio to Embrace Hydroponics
March 18, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
William ‘Bill’ VanScoy takes a few moments away from his family and his greenhouses full of freshly transplanted seedlings to explain how his traditional hog farming operation became one of the largest hydroponic fruit and vegetable farms in Ohio.
“With the reducing acres of usable land in the USA, hydroponics (currently) is one of the more promising ways to keep pace with the growing food demands of a growing world population,” states VanScoy. And keeping up with demand is how it all started for this green thumbed Ohio family.
The 138 acre farm, located in Hardin County, OH, began as a traditional farm in 1983. Early success with hogs and grain meant the VanScoy family soon found they were running out of room. To continue their conventional business more land was necessary. At the time, there was no additional acreage available in the area and so VanScoy had to think of another way to keep up with growing demand. Hydroponics became the most logical solution to increased specialization and decreased land availability.
“In 1999 we started into hydroponics with our first greenhouse raising tomatoes. As our three boys grew up they wanted to farm too so we added our next greenhouse, one acre, in 2004,” explains VanScoy. “We now grow tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries, peppers and green beans all hydroponically. Our 2013 sales will mostly be through CSA’s in the Columbus, Ohio area with other sales in the wholesale and farm markets.”
It took approximately two years for VanScoy Farms to perfect its hydroponic system. Trial and error and an extensive investment in a computer system took the farm from a seasonal to a year round operation. VanScoy now produces five times his traditional yield using 10 percent of the water. Water is filtered back through the hydroponic system to avoid waste and reduce costs. Watering is an automated affair also reducing excess and the chance for human error. Keeping the greenhouses in good condition is a priority for this family grower. The economic investment in the greenhouse structure is balanced by the ability to produce and sell crops year round.
Like many independent producers, VanScoy Farms employs organic methods but does not carry a certified organic label. Instead of spending money on root stabilizers, VanScoy uses shredded coconut to keep the larger plants ‘grounded’ and adds naturally occurring nutrients to enrich the water.
“We use predatory insects to control bad [pests] and use environmental controls to help with plant health,” explains VanScoy, “both of which reduce or eliminate chemical control of most of our growing issues.”
“VanScoy Farms is truly a family farm operation,” shares VanScoy. “Wesley, our oldest son, is full time on the farm and in 2013 we were able to bring back Matthew, the middle son, to the operation. He will be working with the lettuce and greens side of the operation.” When it comes to sowing seed and harvesting crops, VanScoy enlists his extended family to help further reduce overhead.
Direct marketing was one of the many changes VanScoy implemented after switching from traditional bulk growing to smaller specialized growing. Marketing can be a great strain on resources for small farmers. A consistently good tasting product and visibility at the local farmer’s market circuit proved the best and most cost effective form of advertising for VanScoy Farms.
Besides contracts with two regional organic grocery stores, VanScoy sells the bulk of his crops directly to the end user through his farm shop and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) baskets. The farm services locals within a 50 mile radius and VanScoy enjoys the interaction with the customers.
“When we were in wholesale you never saw the end result. […]You didn’t know who your customers were. Its nice to see your end user. You can talk to them every week. I guess that’s what makes us the most proud is that people like what we’re producing. We’re looking at about a ninety percent retention rate on our CSA subscriptions.”
Today, the conventional crop acreage of VanScoy Farms has been converted to growing hay and alfalfa for livestock. A second greenhouse was added in 2004 allowing VanScoy to offer a wider variety of fruit and vegetable for his CSA customers. VanScoy Farms has partnered with other area producers to offer a range of locally harvested products in their CSA baskets including home made soap and local honey.