mGardens grows hydroponic leafy greens in rural Kansas and markets them to local grocery stores, restaurants, and a farmers market.
While much of the country’s domestic hydroponic food production is done by growers located near large urban areas, mGardens in Gorham, Kan., Is reversing the trend. Tom Murphy, who operates the company, asked why should people living in or near large cities be the only ones who can enjoy the taste, freshness and nutrition associated with hydroponic leafy greens?
“My wife Jo and I first became interested in hydroponic food production when we spoke to Ron Cramer,” said Murphy. “Ron and my wife are from the same hometown, educated together and have a long-standing friendship.
“When Ron retired from Sakata Seed, he became interested in hydroponic food production with LED lights. He has been talking to me and my wife for about five years about growing leafy vegetables. He said more food production is moving in this direction. This is linked to the loss of freshness and nutritional value when shipping perishable crops.
In 2015, Tom, Ron and their wives met Chris Higgins at Hort Americas, a horticultural distributor in Bedford, Texas.
“While we were in Texas, we visited a central market grocery store that uses a GrowRack to offer its customers fresh produce, ”said Murphy. “The store grew hydroponic lettuce in its produce section and marketed it to its buyers. You can’t get any fresher and more local than this.
“We came home and purchased a three-tiered GrowRack hydroponic unit equipped with LED lights. We started operating it in March 2017 and were very impressed with the taste and quality of our first harvests of lettuce, kale and arugula.
When Murphy started growing the crops, Cramer told him that he would end up producing more food than he knew what to do with. Murphy first gave the products to relatives and neighbors.
“The people we gave the products to were delighted with the taste and freshness,” said Murphy. “We started to play with producing a mix of greens.”
In September 2017, Murphy hosted a demonstration of how to make salad with the mixed greens at a meeting sponsored by the Russell County Economic Development & Convention and Visitors Bureau. At the meeting were local entrepreneurs and business people.
“I explained to attendees where a lot of our food comes from, how much food is wasted, and what we can do to make food fresher and better tasting,” Murphy said. “I explained to them how this food could be grown locally and asked for comments. Everyone loved the salad. At the meeting was the owner of the local grocery store, Klema’s Apple Market Grocery. He said the store would buy and sell the greens. A strong grocery market was what I needed to start growing commercially.
Take growth seriously
After the business community responded to the Greens, Tom and his nephew Mike Murphy and Mike Tonya’s wife decided to set up a business operation.
“We prepared a business plan and met Chris Higgins,” said Murphy. “Chris explained to us that the floating pond system is the most economical way to grow vegetables. So Mike and I converted the GrowRack three-tier ebb and flow system to a three-tier floating pond system.
Tom ran the floating pond system from July 2017 to January 2018. He was looking for a system that did not require acres of land like the Hort Americas demonstration greenhouse, which he visited on his trip to Texas.
“I asked Chris how we could fit a confined area totally controlled by the environment and equipped with LED lights into a pond system,” he said. “We ended up designing the system on a towel. “
The Murphys bought two old stainless steel refrigerated cars 40 feet long by 8 feet wide and 9 feet high. Tom and Mike started working on the system in November 2017.
“We emptied everything out of those stainless steel containers and poured concrete footings because we knew the pond system would have a lot of weight,” Murphy said. “We calculated that we could fit two rows of racks. We purchased the 8 foot GE Pond Liners and LED Lights from Hort Americas. Mike did all the electrical, plumbing and soldering.
Before starting construction, Murphy said he contacted USDA to inspect the production system he and Mike were installing.
“I wanted the USDA to make sure they were following their guidelines,” he said. “USDA officials visited us three times before making their last visit to give us a business license.
“We also wanted to be FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) certified. We had to install a three-basin commercial sink without a connecting drain. There must have been an air purge on it. Before starting our growth, we wanted to make sure that we were FSMA compliant, even if this law does not come into effect until January 2019. ”
Murphy said the company also needed to obtain a producer license as well as a processor license in order to bag the products for grocery sales.
“Just like a restaurant needs to be USDA inspected, so do we,” he said. “It was perfectly in line with what we were doing to comply with the FSMA guidelines. Our main concern is food security. We tell our customers that we do not grow in the ground, that we watch for pests and diseases and that no insecticides or fungicides are used. The establishment is closed to the public. “
The Murphys began growing at the new production facility in May 2018. Initially, they thought grocery stores would take in more leafy greens, but they currently take less than 25 percent of the crop produced.
“Grocery stores need to develop their market,” Murphy said. “They don’t want to buy too much and then see things go wrong. Right now, restaurants are buying more. Hickok’s Steakhouse in Hays, Kan., Is an upscale restaurant that sought out locally grown produce. He now buys all of his green vegetables from us and cooks amazing specialty dishes with our produce. North Central Kansas Technical College has a culinary arts program and catering business and buys from us.
“We believe our future lies in catering, as they tend to use our product more consistently. Our goal is to grow 100 to 150 pounds of produce per week. We have built the system so that we can double our production capacity if necessary.
Test new crops
When Murphy was doing all the production in the GrowRack, he tried out various crops. While lettuce, kale, arugula and basil are his main crops, he continues to try new species and varieties.
“We buy all of our seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds,” he said. “After you’ve experimented with these crops, if they’re going to be grown commercially, it’s all based on the number of turns per square foot. This is where growing up in the GrowRack for a year really helped us. When we started cultivating in the pond system, we were good to go. We had already selected the crops we were going to grow. We plant about 1,000 plants per week.
For more: mJardins, (785) 637-5604; [email protected]
This article is the property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer from Fort Worth, TX.