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Seedlings, guppies drive growth of hydroculture farming

Anne Knowles
aknowles@nnbw.biz

Northern Nevada commercial farms are growing seedlings and plants indoors without soil and, in one case, raising fish at the same time.

The successes are the bare beginnings here of hydroculture farming, a potential growth area for Nevada’s $5 billion agriculture industry, according to state officials.

“Vertical farming and/or hydroponics growing produces about 10 times the amount of produce per acre, per year, than a traditional soil farmer,” reads a recently released report produced by the Northern Nevada Development Authority for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “This type of growing uses 70 to 90 percent less water than a field farmer … and allows crops that would traditionally be a mono crop to have multiple yields.”

The methods used include hydroponics or the growing of plants using only mineral nutrients and water and aquaponics, the simultaneous cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in an environment conducive to both.

Others hydroculture-based operations have been tried in the past and failed before they even got started. In 2005, a start-up called NewGardens LLC planned to use aeroponics, growing plants in mist without any aggregate medium, at a location on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, but were unable to raise money. The time may be ripe now since three area farms — Great Full Gardens and Sterling Farms, both in Reno, and Hungry Mother Organics in Minden — are thriving using hydroponics.

Great Full Gardens, owned and operated by Juli and Gino Scala, may be better known for its line of soups sold under the Gino the Soup Man label or its two Reno restaurants, Pathways Café on the UNR campus and Great Full Gardens Café, which opened last month in midtown.

But supporting those ventures is a greenhouse full of tomato plants being grown using hydroponics.

“There’s been a lot of trial and error,” says Juli Scala. “At first, we were doing greens and lettuce, and that didn’t work as well as we wanted. Then we tried tomatoes.”

Now the farm grows 100 tomato plants in 400 square feet of a greenhouse, a much smaller area than if they were planted in soil, says Scala.

Sterling Farms grows basil, barley fodder for animal feed and eggplant in a 3,500-square-foot warehouse using grow lights and hydroponics. The basil is sold to area restaurants, the Great Basin Food Co-op and soon another grocer. The barley fodder is sold to Grow For Me Sustainable Farm in Reno and Back 40 Farms in Palomino Valley for feeding all kinds of farm animals, including pigs, chickens, goats, horses and rabbits. The eggplant, which is grown in a medium called coco made from crushed coconuts and pollinated by a hive of 50 bees, is sold to the food co-op, Great Full Gardens and Sardini’s restaurant in Reno.

Jeannie Damonte, Sterling Farms owner, says she hopes to expand this summer, hire a second employee and begin selling wheatgrass to the food co-op, which in turn sells it to a juice store. Damonte says she doesn’t have any statistics on water usage, but says all the water used, as well as the nutrients, are recycled.

Hungry Mother Organics grows seedlings, herbs and edible plants using water from two 3,500-gallon tanks, where about 1,000 tilapia are being raised.

“The best way to use the fish water is as a nutrient system for the seedlings,” says Mark O’Farrell, owner of Hungry Mother, which operates a retail farm stand and store in Minden.

Hungry Mother has been cultivating seedlings for five years, but this is the business’ first foray into fish farming.

“We’ve got fish running at quarter to half pound, and barring any unforeseen circumstance, we’ll be harvesting them in early June,” says O’Farrell.