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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Minnesota Entrepreneur Combines Hydroponic Growing and Native Fish Farming

March 19, 2014 |

Romaine lettuce is Thoele’s most productive green. Photo courtesy of Barry Thoele.

Romaine lettuce is Thoele’s most productive green. Photo courtesy of Barry Thoele.

As a hydroponic grower, fishing guide, aquaponics teacher, wetland restoration expert and breeder of native bait, Barry Thoele is a man of all sustainable trades.

“The industrial model that we have right now, I understand it, I don’t like it and I don’t condone it,” says Thoele. “If I’m going to speak out against it, I need to offer something else.”

By combining a penchant for invention with a self-taught approach, Thoele has worked through trial-and-error to determine what works best for his land.

“I’ve been growing for about ten years,” says Thoele.  “A couple of years before that I tried to grow organically, but I own 22 acres here and about 16 are wetlands.”

Thoele runs two profitable businesses in Staples, Minnesota despite weather and fuel costs. The first is Barry’s Cherries, a hydroponic vegetable farm that grows cherry tomatoes, romaine lettuce, watercress, and cucumbers in 7,000 square feet of greenhouse and high tunnels.

Instead of hampering his goal of hydroponic growing, Thoele’s wetlands have become an opportunity for his second business, Lincoln Bait, which grows native fish species for stream restoration and bait.

“With the water table as high as it is, I’ve got twelve ponds. So I do research on aquaculture,” he says. “The spawning system mimics our clear water rivers here in northern Minnesota. My intention was that I would take my pressure off the wild harvest. I can’t change the world but I can change what I do.”

Hydroponic farming seemed like the natural progression for Thoele’s  environmental ethic. With no need for crop rotation and minimal pests, he finds manual hydroponics a sustainable alternative to traditional in-ground growing, especially with Minnesota’s harsh climate.

“My systems are manually operated because somewhere along the line, if the automation goes wrong you need to be able to do nutrient and pH adjustments by hand,” says Thoele.

Thoele produces live root vegetables for regional markets with an approximate turnaround of 31 to 35 days, depending on the season. Starter plants are readied in a high tunnel for ten days and then moved to the hydroponic greenhouses that make use of overhead natural light. Sterilized pond water and custom nutrients circulate in the greenhouse pipes.  Each of his systems holds 1260 plants at various growing stages in 10-foot gutters. An overhead grid structure supports the farm’s “sugar sweet” signature cherry tomatoes.

A total of 400 to 450 heads of romaine lettuce are grown in a large greenhouse every week. A smaller greenhouse produces 8-20 pounds of spinach per week. Selling through a regional food hub, Sprout MN LLC, Thoele’s produce is distributed to schools, hospitals and area restaurants. Thoele has worked closely with the food hub since its inception and offers cold storage facilities to other hub growers.

Business is profitable, which Thoele attributes to the scale of his operation.

“Agriculture all around the country and all around the world is a matter of scale,” he says. “You can milk ten cows and grow broke. You can milk 50 cows and you might break even. You milk 100 cows you might make a little bit of profit, or you can milk 500 cows and make money. Changing this model into locally grown is still going to be a matter of scale.”

In his spare time, Thoele teaches classes on hydroponics utilizing a 90-plant system, and speaks at various conferences and workshops. The majority of his sustainable inventions are available as open-source systems, as Thoele wants to spread the message of creative solutions to America’s sustainability issues and enable others to leverage his work.

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