From Christmas Trees to Hydroponic Produce, Farmer Holds onto Roots with Eye to the Future
August 29, 2016 | Lydia Noyes
For Paul Mock, founder of Mock’s Greenhouse and Farm in Berkeley Springs, WV, farming is more than a career; it’s a way of life.
“My family’s been farming for over a hundred years,” says Paul. “I’ve technically been in the business since I was five years old.”
The greenhouses, with their soilless growing systems, in which Paul Mock now spends his days stand in stark contrast to the Christmas tree farm he grew up on. After working on the family farm for most of his adult life, Paul moved off the farm in 2003 to start his own hydroponics greenhouse operation. His reasons for this dramatic change were straightforward.
“I like to incorporate the new with the old,” Paul says. “Hydroponics seemed like a good direction for me to go in.” A completely indoor, soil-less hydroponics greenhouse system allows Paul to incorporate new agricultural techniques with traditional methods, meaning that in some ways he still farms like his grandfather a hundred years ago while also getting the chance to be innovative.
This dramatic transition wasn’t Paul’s first introduction into hydroponic farming, as his involvement goes back 30 years to some fruitless experiments with an ill-suited greenhouse in the 1980s that left his crops ungrown, but his interest piqued. Starting over in 2005 with three greenhouses built specifically for a hydroponic system, Mock’s Greenhouse started small and grew lettuce and tomatoes for wholesale.
For Paul, the benefits of a hydroponic system are easy to see. Compared to traditional soil-growing methods, a hydroponics system allows for year-round production and income, which eliminates the winter slump period that traditional farmers face. It also allows growing conditions to be carefully controlled, meaning that harsh sunlight or too much rain are no longer a liability. Plants are also able to be individually pampered and given the perfect amounts of nutrients they need everyday to thrive. Not least of all, most of the work happens at waist level, a matter of no small concern for Paul as he looks to continue being hands on in his business until retirement.
However, the quality of food that can be grown in a hydroponic system matters little if that food can’t be put in the hands of receptive buyers. That’s why Paul believes that a proper selling strategy is tantamount to the success of a hydroponics system.
“Our selling strategy has evolved in the last decade,” he says. “We started selling only a few products that were all wholesale, but now we are much more diversified.” Now the farm sells at several weekly farmers’ markets and to local restaurants for an additional source of income. Because they have increased the diversity of the plants they grow, they are finding that specialty markets are responding well to their products. Their numerous tomato varieties do exceptionally well at farmers’ markets; Paul estimates that over 80 percent of them are sold there.
Nonetheless, the rapid growth of Mock’s Farm has caused Paul to constantly reevaluate his selling methods. “We sell to fewer restaurants now,” he said. “It just got too time consuming to make all those deliveries and we began losing efficiency.” Other small changes around the farm have also made a big difference in time management. By recently updating their main freezer to a wider model, Mock’s Farm can now load their produce trucks in half the time with one less employee.
For those considering getting started in the hydroponics business, Paul recommends taking some classes or workshops from the manufacturers of greenhouse systems. Workshops through Crop King enabled him to get hands-on experience with hydroponic growing methods and the equipment that he now uses in his operation.
Mock’s Farm is flourishing and expanding every year. The property now holds 30 hydroponic greenhouses that together provide over two acres of growing space. It’s been a goal of Paul’s to support his family entirely off the earnings from his farm, and since he quit his landscaping job in 2007, he has been doing just that. Now, Mock’s Farm employs six full time workers and 10 part timers.
As he looks to the future, Paul hopes to build on the farm’s early success and become the second biggest hydroponics farm in West Virginia. No matter what changes the future might bring to them, Mock’s Farm is looking forward to continuing to serve the greater Eastern Panhandle community with local, healthy, and sustainably grown vegetables.