I’m sitting at my desk, having a bite of lunch before leaving to host an Open House on Siesta Key. In front of me is simply the best salad I’ve ever made at home. And every bite of it came from Sarasota’s first hydroponic farm, Sweetgrass Farms, an oasis of goodness located a block north of University Parkway at the end of Carolina Street. If you’ve ever wondered what the “next” big thing in farming will be, you absolutely need to check out Sweetgrass Farms’ hydroponic growing system.
Hydroponic farming is a vertical farming platform that grows small to mid-sized fruits, vegetables and herbs in pots suspended in rows of 4 or 5 on a pole, with an eco-friendly watering system that drips the exact right amount of water and nutrients from the top level, through the suspended pots, to an anchor pot at the bottom. Also known as “controlled farming,” hydroponic farming hails back to the ancient Gardens of Babylon. I could go into more technical detail, but hey. . . I’d rather talk about the incredible backstory and quality of the food at this amazing operation!
Founded in 2014 by Doctor Jim Demler and his wife Kathy, Sweetgrass Farms quickly made a name for themselves whenever foodies discuss the most nutritious and delicious places to buy local produce.
Being a doctor, Jim Demler spent years concerned for his patients, most of whom he felt were poisoning themselves with toxic food.
“The food we’re eating today is not good for us — and not just processed foods. There is an herbicide called 2,4D that was recently approved by the FDA, even though it was a principal ingredient in Agent Orange! Think about that for a second! In the quest to produce more food with less effort, our farmers are encouraged to use herbicides and pesticides like these. As a doctor, I wanted to do something, but the only farming experience Kathy and I have is a cherry orchid and raspberries on a property we own in Montana. I didn’t have the answer until I was introduced to hydroponic farming. Since then, Sweetgrass Farms has become my passion!”
Jim and Kathy looked at all the options and chose to install the Verti-Gro Hydroponic Growing System, pioneered by Tim Carpenter over thirty years ago. The Verti-Gro system is used at Epcot and 25 other countries across the globe. “Hydroponic farming is even being tested on the Space Station and in Antarctica,” Jim Demler explains, barely containing his excitement.
“Sounds like hydroponic is the “better agricultural mouse trap” of the farming industry,” Mart said. I tend to agree.
The produce at Sweetgrass Farms is grown in pots filled with a clean fiber made from coconut husks. The fiber holds the water long enough for the roots to get the nutrients they need to funnel up into the plants, instead of draining out into the soil. And since the produce never touches the ground, Sweetgrass Farms doesn’t need to use pesticides, herbicides or animal fertilizer. If the plants are ever faced with airborne predators or pathogens, Sweetgrass uses a controlled amount of safe, organic pesticides, such as orange oil or copper spray.
What results is produce that is even cleaner that organic! Let that sink in for a minute . . . Sweetgrass Farms waters their plants from a 600 foot well on the property, tapping into the aquifer and pumping it through a filtration system that adds natural nutrients before being fed to the plants. Each plant receives the precise amount of water and nutrients it needs to thrive, and thrive they do — even during Florida’s hot summer months!
The economy of scale is amazing. How else could a farmer grow over 40,000 plants on only three acres! And consider this . . . Sweetgrass Farms uses 90% less water on 80% less land than conventional land farming. Hydroponic farming is, indeed, the farming of the future, especially in areas where conventional farming is impossible.
“Because there is no soil, there isn’t any soil-borne bacterium,” Kathy explains, “so our produce lasts longer. I once tested this by putting a strawberry on a counter and it didn’t start to turn until 8 days later. Our greens don’t spoil in the refrigerator. You can actually eat them straight off the vine!” Her passion as a school teacher is reflected in her desire to educate both children and adults on the merits of hydroponic farming, be it at a tour of the farm, or at a meeting of a local charity.
But back to my salad. I took advantage of Sweetgrass Farm’s Harvest Box program, where you can order a half bushel ($25) or a full bushel ($45) of their current vegetable choices.
Our bushel contained healthy amounts (pun intended) of the following:
2 heads of romaine lettuce
1 head of red leafy lettuce
1/2 bunch of green kale
1/2 bunch of red kale
1 lb. of tomatoes (head and shoulders better tasting than store bought – we did a blind taste test!)
1 bunch of cilantro
1 bunch of green onions
1 bunch of flat leaf parsley
1/2oz of micro greens
1 bunch of red beets
1 bunch of arugula
1 bunch of oregano
1 bunch of cherry radishes
1 bunch dandelion
Let me state unequivocally; these fruits and veggies absolutely taste better, because they are better! Intense colors, richly flavorful, and totally awesome! (Admit it – don’t you feel healthier just reading the list?)
But wait . . . there’s more! As in strawberries, rows upon rows of delicious, perfect, luscious, sweet strawberries. All the plants at Sweetgrass Farm are grown from seed, except the strawberries, which are grown from baby plants. These delightful bites of healthy heaven are so popular that Sweetgrass Farms hosts strawberry picking every Saturday. And everyone is invited! You don’t have to bend down and pick your fruit, and even young children and people in wheelchairs can take part of the fun!
Don’t see a vegetable you like? Tell Kathy, Jim or Sweetgrass Farm’s Director of Sales, Sarah Morgan, what you’d like and they’ll grow it for you.
Our advice? Go to the website, order your own Harvest Box, or visit the farm (Tuesday through Friday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturdays from 9-3) and taste for yourself this local “ground-breaking” venture!
And don’t forget that Kathy or Sarah are happy to conduct a tour for your school or charitable organization. Sweet!