|Steve Carpenter shows off some of this year’s pepper crop.|
Certified Naturally Grown Produce The Hydroponic Way
Typically farmers are thought to have an occupation where they play in the dirt, but not Steve Carpenter. Steve and his wife Connie’s farm Jack-O-Lantern Farms grows fruits and vegetables hydroponically - meaning the plants are grown without soil. The term hydroponic is derived from Greek "hydros," water, and "ponos," work; it is also commonly referred to as aquaculture. As the world becomes more and more populated, scientists are looking to hydroponics as a potential way to grow food in urban areas.
Carpenter grew up on a row crop farm in Tuscumbia. When he got older, he worked for the railroad for a while before returning home to the farm. Their farm then focused on pumpkins and winter squash; but as the economy took a turn for the worse, they had to do something different.
"When money gets tight, people can do without pumpkins," Carpenter explained. "We then started looking at growing vegetables."
|Clockwise from right, peppers are pictured here growing in the greenhouse. They grow on wires and eventually become so thick Carpenter calls it the “Pepper Jungle.” Tomatoes are grown in both the greenhouses and a traditional garden; the greenhouses allow for fresh tomatoes all year. Some herbs are grown in the greenhouses by Steve Carpenter’s wife Connie. Pictured here is basil.|
Carpenter, who was on the State Farmers Market Board, said they were looking for ways to help small farms and he mentioned to the board he wanted a greenhouse. Through speaking to several people in 2004, he was able to go from a small greenhouse at his home to leasing a greenhouse from TVA in Sheffield. The greenhouses were built in the 1950s for soil testing, but had not been used in recent years.
|The bucket system has an irrigation system that waters, based on heat and sunlight, 2-12 times a day.|
The first year in their new location, they planted 470 tomato plants and 300 heads of lettuce hydroponically. Today, they still have 470 tomato plants and grow about 5,000 heads of lettuce a month. Tomatoes, according to Carpenter, are one of the more labor-intensive crops he grows. For two people it is about a 40-hour-a-week job. Because of the ideal conditions he is able to provide the crops, Jack-O-Lantern Farms is able to produce two crops of tomatoes each year and eight crops of lettuce. Since there are no cool nights in the greenhouse, plants are allowed to flourish.
According to Carpenter, "Growing vegetables hydroponically means there is less insect and disease pressure; but, if there is a problem, it is huge because the problem can spread so easily."
No pesticides, herbicides or synthetic nutrients are used in the greenhouses and they produce Certified Naturally Grown Produce.
Carpenter works very closely with two other hydroponic growers in the state and has learned a lot from them. Even though their operations are similar, they are still different: "Each grower has different nutrient mixtures they use because of the different day length in their area and the temperature difference."
Like all forms of agriculture, some days are challenging.
"There were some days where I wanted to take a wrecking ball to this place the first 3-5 years we were here in operation, but it has gotten better, we have finally figured out what works for us," Carpenter explained.
|Clockwise from top left, the lettuce still develops a root structure even though there is no soil. The water includes minerals the lettuce needs that is specific to their geographic area. Jack-o-Lantern Farms produces 5,000 heads of lettuce a month and they grow four different varieties. Steve Carpenter shows the Styrofoam boards on which the lettuce rests while growing; the roots go through a square hole into the water and mineral solution below.|
Carpenter grows four varieties of lettuce and uses several different systems to grow his produce. His bucket system is set up on a drip irrigation system; it is watered at least twice a day, but no more than 12 times depending upon the temperature. His stacker system allows 20 plants to be grown in an area one plant would typically grow.
|Steve Carpenter opens his farmer’s market three days a week – Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday – to provide the freshest produce to the Shoals area.|
The lettuce Carpenter grows is in a water and mineral solution. The heads of lettuce rest on top of Styrofoam sheets and the roots dangle through a hole into the water. The bucket system and stacker system utilize vermiculite and perlite, a growth medium used instead of soil; you often see these white granules in potting mix. The vermiculite and perlite are great because they can be sterilized to kill disease after each use. Bumble bees are used as pollinators in the greenhouse and pollination occurs as needed throughout the year because of the greenhouses’ temperatures.
"It is much harder to keep the greenhouses cool enough in the summertime than it is to warm them in the winter," he remarked.
The system Carpenter is using has its place. His 35’x 100’ greenhouses hold what one acre of land would hold. He believes these greenhouse systems would be well suited for urban areas.
"The United States is behind," he said. "European countries have gardens and greenhouses on roofs trying to use every space they can."
As water use becomes tighter for agriculture, hydroponic may be looked to as it uses two-thirds less water than a field would.
"In the greenhouse setting, you do not look at the acre, but you judge your productivity by the square foot," Carpenter explained.
|From left, Beth Sockwell chooses from a basket of okra at Jack-O-Lantern Farms. Beth says she frequents the market and loves the variety of produce they offer. Susan Young of Sheffield picks out some lettuce at the Tuesday afternoon market.|
Steve and Connie not only grow hydroponically grown crops, but they also grow crops in traditional ways - out in a garden, in the soil. They have added the field-grown crops in the last few years in order to offer more produce. They have also added hogs, cattle, 150 free-range laying hens and very recently broilers. They sell their products three days a week at their farmers market on Garage Road in Muscle Shoals. They also wholesale to some of the Shoals’ best restaurants: 360 Grille, Claunch Café and, their largest customer, City Hardware. Restaurants can email or even text Carpenter and they can have fresh produce at their door in 20 minutes.
"People are very interested in our produce," Carpenter said. "We had our first hydroponics field day 2 years ago and we had 35 in attendance. This year, our third, we had 125 people come.
"We have anywhere from 100-500 people come to the market three days a week."
Whether or not hydroponics becomes a popular production method across the country, Steve and Connie Carpenter have found a way to make it work in the Shoals.
You can find Jack-O-Lantern Farms online at www.jackolanternfarm.com, on Facebook and you can follow them on Twitter (@jolfarm).
Anna Leigh Peek is a freelance writer from Auburn.