Hydroponic growers build following at farmers marts

Tom Blount tired of paying exorbitant amounts for fresh produce when he ran a restaurant in Kauai. So he grew his own select garden greens and shopped local supermarkets for deals on lettuce and tomatoes.

Today Blount sells his own produce to restaurants and consumers at farmers markets.

Blount, 51, and his older brother, John, head Nevada Naturals, a Reno home-based hydroponic farming venture that keeps Tom Blount busy about 16 hours a day.

Nevada Naturals grows eight types of tomatoes, six varieties of bell peppers, four flavors of basil and 32 varieties of lettuce. Blount says the year-old company will add varieties as it grows. Roughly 80 percent of Nevada Naturals sales are at farmers markets, although Tom Blount says Nevada Naturals has received interest in supplying products to the Siena, Porky's restaurant in southeast Reno and John Ascuaga's Nugget.

"We do really well at farmers markets, although it's hard for us to compete with Californians. They bring in stuff by the truckload," he says.

Speed to market is one of the benefits of growing hydroponically. Blount says he harvests a crop every 32-35 days, whereas soil-grown lettuce typically takes 45-58 days to harvest. He plants and harvests 100 heads of lettuce each day.

After Blount germinates seeds in his garage, each plant is moved into a raft in a tank that provides oxygenated water and nutrients. The small plants sit in the raft between six and eight days before they are moved outside to the sunlight and one of several large float tanks.

Space-efficient growing is another plus. Blount's backyard is packed with dozens of greens. Blount says an acre of crop grown hydroponically would require five acres of soil.

Water pumps, lights and associated gear push the household power bill up about $500 per month. Other operating expenses, such as germinating cubes, seeds and nutrients add about $1,500 to $2,000 a month to the company's costs.

On the other side of the ledger, Blount says Nevada Naturals can gross as much as $2,500 from a week's worth of selling at area farmers markets.

The operation continues throughout the winter, although plants have been moved inside the garage during cold spells.

But Blount says there are no farmers markets in the area after September and October, and Nevada Naturals loses its main sales channel.

Blount plans to query grocery stores and restaurants as possible new outlets.

"We have to be creative in our sales," he says. "We have built up a following, and it would be a shame to lose that following because there were no farmers markets to sell through."

Nevada Naturals eventually would like to expand into making its own sauces, salsas and salad dressings using Reno-grown produce.

"It opens whole new avenues of sales for us," Blount says.


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