Story Featuring Graves, Marshall Counties on KET
By WestKyStar Staff
MAYFIELD, KY - Ky. Hydro Farm of Marshall County grows nutritious vegetables hydroponically. Its connection as a food supplier to the Graves County School District will be featured in an upcoming documentary. “Well Fed: Nourishing Our Children for a Lifetime” will air on KET, Kentucky Educational Television, today, Feb. 18, at 8 pm. Once the program airs, it will be available for viewing on-line at www.ket.org/health
Ky. Hydro Farm, LLC, in Marshall County, is growing a tremendous amount of produce hydroponically! “That’s a result of great effort, education, and forward thinking,” said Fred Nesler, deputy executive director in the Office of Strategic Planning and Administration of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. “They’ve worked for years to get it to this point and I see a lot of potential for growth both for them and for others. It’s good for them. It’s good for education. And, it’s good for healthier food. I’d urge FFA students, teachers, farmers, and really anybody to come see what Ky. Hydro Farm is doing. It truly is the future of agriculture for fresh, nutritious, healthy food.”
“I was here the day Matt Wyatt came into the office about two years ago,” said Kim Gray, administrative assistant in the Food Services Department of the Graves County Schools. “He had a cardboard tray with heads of butter lettuce with the roots attached, something I had never seen, and cherry tomatoes to sample that were delicious!”
Shelina McClain taught family and consumer science at Graves County High School for 17 years. This summer, she transferred to the school district’s central office as Food Services director. She and Nesler recently toured Ky. Hydro Farm. She said, “I didn’t expect the mass quantity of the vegetables they produce. There were hundreds of tomato plants and several varieties of lettuce. The quality of the produce is extremely high: not only for nutrition, but also for taste and even presentation! The vegetables have very vibrant colors, textures, and crispness. This kind of produce is perfect for our new nutrition guidelines!”
“The price is slightly higher, but that’s off-set by the quality, nutrition, taste, and shelf life,” Gray explained. “The chopped iceberg lettuce we used for years typically is low in nutritional value and doesn’t stay fresh long. Iceberg lettuce is grown thousands of miles away and picked before it ripens, so transportation costs are high and nutritional value is low.”
“When we take lettuce to customers with the roots intact, this is a living product, so the lasting qualities of this aspect make it even a more advantageous quality,” said Matt Wyatt of Ky. Hydro Farm. “They can take it when it looks like this – fresh on the vine – and it still looks that way two weeks later.
“We’ve been growing hydroponically for about six years now,” he continued. “The idea was diversification, trying to do something year-round, rather than just seasonal. It allows you to use your facilities around ten months, about the same schedule as schools. We just started experimenting. We started thinking outside the box. Every crop is different and every day is a learning experience. Since good-flavored tomatoes are so in-demand, we thought that was good place to start. We have beefsteak and cocktail tomatoes. Over time, we added cucumbers, bell peppers, squash, strawberries, pole beans, and lettuce. We have butter lettuce, bibb, leaf, romaine, arugula, red oak, and some blends.
“Do we run into obstacles? Oh, all the time,” he grinned. “I think commitment is the biggest obstacle. The Graves County Schools have been great! They’ve stuck with us and are becoming more in-tune. Logistics is a limiting factor for a lot of producers. Going to customers with small orders increases overhead costs. A better alternative would be if there was some way to have and use central locations for customers to cut down on transportation costs. If you’re going to go out and deliver, you’ve got to have the volume to make it worthwhile.”
McClain said for the Graves County Schools, “A central location for us would involve needing a walk-in cooler and possibly freezer to store those commodities and others on our central campus. Our producers could deliver their products there and we could distribute them, as needed. Of course, a major barrier to that arrangement is the cost, considering tight budgets during these hard economic times. I would hope there might be a grant available along those lines.”
Nesler suggested the Governor’s Agriculture Development Board as a resource for various projects where districts can apply for monies. For example, some FFA programs have obtained grants through that program.
“In my grandkids’ lifetime, this will become a more of common way to grow. Right now, it’s science fiction,” Wyatt concluded. “It’s really a simple idea. Getting everything in balance is the real challenge. The awareness of organic farming has brought some good attention. It’s raised awareness in people’s thoughts about food safety and traceability. We tell them this isn’t technically organic, but we don’t use pesticides. It’s all indoors and we’re not nearly as vulnerable to disease pressure animal-borne or from the soil. Those are things people want to know. When it’s local, they even can know their farmer and come out and look at it!”
This article and accompanying photos originally appeared in Kentucky School Leader, a publication f the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, Winter 2012 edition.