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Local Greenhouse Uses Hydroponics

by Caitlin Yoder

Published: Friday, June 8, 2018

Micro Farms LLC in Nappanee is a greenhouse growing farm fresh produce year-round using hydroponics.

Loren Graber had the idea nearly 25 years ago for a hydroponic greenhouse with vertically grown crops. At the time, he was working on the family dairy farm. When his son Dion was born, milk prices dropped drastically and the farm had to be sold.

He dabbled in several other businesses, but most failed. He now owns several other successful companies, including Digger Specialties Bremen, that helped him begin Micro Farms.

Four years ago, his vision for the greenhouse came to life. This type of greenhouse is not common in the area, and he put his own twist on the way the crops are grown.

Micro Farms collects rainwater for their plants, but they are not grown in soil. Instead they grow in foam cubes. The leafy greens are placed in 12-foot-high tubes, and the other crops grow up string suspended from the ceiling. The medium used for the vine crops is recycled glass called grow stone.

Loren has two sons who are also a part of the business, Nick and Dion. They have one full-time employee and a part-time worker as well. Dion is the head grower and spends much of his time at the greenhouse.

"This is kind of my baby," Dion said. "I might as well put a cot here because I'm here all the time. As my wife says, I might as well live here."

In the greenhouse, there are no pesticides or chemicals of any kind. In the beginning, Dion said they tried using organic, all-natural sprays. But even this left a film on the leaves that deterred photosynthesis from happening correctly. Even though they were spraying all organic, it was still hurting the plants. That's when they decided to try something different and brought in bugs.

"We use beneficial bugs to get rid of any pests in the greenhouse," Dion said. "We do not spray any preservatives. We do not spray any kind of herbicide, pesticide. We don't spray anything on our plants at all. We will tear them out if they go bad versus spray something on them."

These bugs may cost them more than the pesticides and sprays would, but to them the benefits outweigh the costs.

"In two and a half years I can honestly say I could stand in front of a judge under oath and say we have not sprayed anything on our plants at all," Dion said. "We spend the extra money just to go that little step higher to get that quality because we want to have consistent quality over anything else."

That is not the only thing the family does at Micro Farms to ensure quality. Their tomatoes are slow grown by putting salt in the nutrient tanks, which causes the plant to grow anodally and focus more on quality.

"We don't ever harvest anything early, ever," Dion said. "Even if we wait and we happen to miss it, we would rather do that than harvest it weeks early and throw it in a cooler and give it to you when it's all soggy."

Growing produce in a greenhouse has its advantages, such as a potentially ideal environment for plants to grow. However, things can still go wrong quickly. Dion said on little malfunction with the vents could cause things to heat up too quickly and kill off plants. For the most part though, Micro Farms hasn't had too many issues like that. They must pay close attention to their plants and spend a lot of time tending to them.

Weather can still be an issue, even in a controlled environment. In the winter, everything grows very slowly. It can be challenging, no matter what time of the year to keep a consistent heat and level of humidity.

Tomatoes, snacker cucumbers and 12 different kinds of leafy greens are all grown in the quarter acre greenhouse, but Dion is partial to the red and yellow peppers.

"The red and yellow peppers are my pride and joy," he said. "They are so sweet it's almost like eating candy."

Prices for produce are good right now, but marketing their product was difficult at first. Nearly everyone is the area has their own garden, but not many had the ability to grow year-round. Luckily, Loren has knowledge about marketing.

"My dad is kind of a jack of all trades," Dion said. "He's the CEO, salesman, engineer. He's pretty good with marketing stuff too."

Micro Farms now sells produce at local farmers markets, local restaurants and an online farmers market called Market Wagon. Tomatoes are sold for around $2.50 per pound, $2 per pound for peppers, .25 cents a piece for cucumbers and $2 for a head of lettuce.

Greenhouses typically struggle for the first five years before becoming profitable, and many don't last because of the labor and cost that goes into it. Micro Farms is slowly getting there, but without their other profitable businesses it could be another story.

In the future, they hope to have a co-op of growers that grow the produce for them, then Micro Farms would do the marketing. They also want to sell their home growing units, which allow anyone to grow their own fresh produce using hydroponics. They also hope to sell their newly patented tubes that grow the lettuce.

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