Myakka City, Fla. – Armed with baskets and gardening scissors, Lisa Fuss and her daughters walked slowly among tall rows of leafy green vegetables. But in their quest for the latest ingredients for their new smoothie-making blender, there would be no bending involved.
Instead, the rows of vegetables were vertical, and taller than 4-year-old Kelly, who trailed behind her sister, Caroline, 8.
“Okay, let’s see. Do you want to start with the peppers?” Fuss called to them.
Fuss and her daughters, from St. Petersburg, are among 4,000 people a week who drive from other parts of the state to visit Hydro-Taste Hydroponic U-pick Farm, about 22 miles east of Sarasota and a 12-mile drive from Interstate 75.
The farm, which grows plants in nutrient-filled water instead of soil, draws families from throughout Central and Southwest Florida as well as tourists. Young, fresh-food aficionados come to pick their own produce. Retired residents who grew up on farms love it because they don’t have to kneel or bend.
There are 250,000 hydroponic plants to pick from here, including strawberries, blueberries, kale, corn and cabbage. Prices are typically 50 cents to $1 a pound less than those in grocery stores; for instance, tomatoes on this day were going for $1.89 a pound, potatoes for 99 cents a pound.
Fuss and her family first came for the popular strawberries, which the farm has in bloom from November through May. Now they were back for vegetables for their new blender-juicer.
“Mom, can I pick one more pepper?” Kelly asked as Fuss and Caroline moved on to Swiss chard.
“I don’t know if they’ll necessarily like eating it,” Fuss said, “but they like picking it.”
Chester Bullock, the owner and a third-generation farmer, knew he’d never convince his father to try out the hydroponic system on the family’s Midwest farm when he first heard about it back in the 1970s.
“They thought I was out of my mind,” he said of hydroponics.
He did get to try the system while he lived part-time in Colorado, and saw that the ski resorts needed fresh food. Using hydroponics, he supplied the resorts with lettuce for the next 20 years. During that time, he and his wife developed and patented the Hydro-Stacker vertical hydroponic garden units – a business that helped them send their three children to upscale universities.
In the late 1990s, they escaped Midwest winters and moved to Florida, and brought with them their Hydro-Stackers. There were three traditional strawberry farms on the road where they took up residence. Once again people told him he was crazy.
“You’ll never make it,” Bullock said they were told.
But on their 30 acres, they grew fruits and vegetables on 2.2 acres, starting with strawberries and 15,000 plants. With hydroponics.
People would stop on the dirt road: “What are you doing?” he said they asked.
“What we grew, we sold,” said Bullock, 68.
“People want fresh and they want local. That’s been around forever,” he said one afternoon after ending a how-to class for people who grow at home with Hydro-Stackers. He also holds a commercial class once a month. The Hydro-Stackers are now in every state and 31 countries.
Regular visitors can join the Produce Club through which a family of four buys a weekly basket of fruit and vegetables for $35, a couple for $18. In addition to the rare use of pesticides in lieu of cayenne pepper and soap, the hydroponic system is attractive because it takes up less space and uses less water, Bullock said.
For instance, their 60,000 strawberry plants on a half-acre would take up 7 acres on traditional ground farming, he noted. Instead of the 900 gallons of water a day they use on the strawberries, they would have to use 140,000 gallons a day on a traditional farm.
“We get a lot of juicers and raw food people, vegans even,” said Andrew Hill, the facilities manager, as shoppers in the storefront placed fruits and vegetables in their baskets or bought smoothies and deli sandwiches. A new 16,000-square-foot store is under construction.
Hill, whom Bullock considers almost a fourth child, started working here when he was 14 to save up to buy a truck. He fell in love with the place and changed his plans to major in pharmacy. The 22-year-old – the future owner of this farm – is now studying for a business degree.
“To grow something and see the rewards on someone’s face…,” Hill said. “It pays off.”
IF YOU GO…
Hydro-Taste Hydroponics U-pick Farm is located at 7308 Verna Bethany Road in Myakka City, Florida, about 12 miles from Interstate 75, using either State Road 64 or State Road 70. For directions or more information, call (941) 322-0429 or visit www.hydrotaste.com.