If you are an avid GO diner, you might have noticed a most intriguing cherry tomato garnishing our Straight from the Garden Salad from time to time. It’s almost purple – possessing a rather swarthy complexion – and its flavor is even more complex. First comes sweetness followed by a heady, earthy flavor – bringing to mind dark, rich soil. This is most ironic, considering these tomatoes are grown without any dirt whatsoever. Wes and Juanita Melling cultivate these Black Cherry Tomatoes (an heirloom variety) in their entirely hydroponic greenhouse in Moncks Corner.
There at Kurios Farms, they have over 6,000 plants – predominately, lettuce but also tomatoes, cucumbers, and basil. If you have never seen a hydroponic setup, it really is something to behold. From the outside, it might just be another greenhouse – a large white structure made of galvanized metal tubing with a plastic skin. And even when you first enter, it does not look so foreign. Rows upon rows of plants climb up wire trellises, and happy fruit hangs from vines. Bees even flit about, pollinating plants. But then you look down and notice there happens to be no dirt anywhere. Wes grows his plants in perlite – a crushed volcanic rock – and a maze of plastic tubes connects the plants. Water runs through these tubes delivering nutrients like calcium and pot ash, and this entire process is controlled by a silent sentinel that hangs on the front wall.
If you made a quick tour of the place, you might not even notice this Grower’s Choice computer, which controls all of the variables – humidity, temperature, feeding, cooling and air flow. During the height of the season, the plants are fed every 20 minutes for 3 minutes, and they use 1,500 gallons of water each day. It would be easy to give the computer too much credit – a bit like the Wizard in Oz – when, in reality, the Mellings deserve all the credit. They are constantly perusing the rows -- harvesting, pruning, and making sure those bees (which they buy bi-monthly) are doing their job.
Also, Wes is constantly reprogramming the computer, and he knows better than to blindly trust electronics. One year he noticed that his plants were not progressing at a normal rate, and he finally thought to check his ph meter. He discovered the calibration was off, which meant he was not treating his water correctly, and consequently, he had to rip everything out and start over.
“Every year things come up,” says Wes. “You think you have it all under control…”
Still, he would much rather tend to his plants than sit behind a desk. The Mellings moved to South Carolina from Ohio in 1999. Wes had worked in management at BF Goodrich for 12 years when they decided to move away from the cold weather. Originally, the Mellings planned on buying a floral shop in the Charleston area, but that deal fell apart and Wes began to look into other options. He says the hydroponic idea came from a magazine that described how you could make as much money off an eighth of an indoor acre as you could off 100 outdoor acres. Basically, the greenhouse would cost the same as a large tractor.
Wes had always loved gardening, and after visiting a hydroponic setup in Ohio, he decided to take the plunge. For $160,000, www.cropking.com provided all the pieces to build his operation and some technical support. Now, Wes talks casually about seriously scientific sounding topics like EC, or electrical continuity (which describes the amount of solids in the water) -- and he grows exquisite produce.
The Mellings sell their crops from the small storefront connected to the greenhouse and at the Summerville Farmers market. Their season is a bit different from outdoor farming, as it begins in November and ends in July. The plants must be torn out once a year, and July happens to be the perfect time due to the extreme heat and abundance of local tomatoes (which drives the prices down). This alternative growing season works out especially well for restaurants – allowing places like the GO to count on a consistent product during the winter months.
In July, the Mellings might try to take a little break and visit family in Ohio, but like traditional farmers, they are pretty bound to their trade. (They built a home that neighbors the greenhouse.)
“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it,” Wes says. “If I figured out the time, I would make about $5 per hour.”
The Mellings’ son, Jarrod, does work with them, and Wes hopes he will take over the bulk of the work in the next few years. For now, his help proves invaluable with the more physical aspects of the job, like walking around on stilts to lower the plants when they reach the top of the trellis. It’s idiosyncrasies like this that make hydroponic gardening so unique and add a certain intrigue to the entire process. But when you ask Wes how he most enjoys his own product he gives a simple answer, “The tomatoes are nice sliced, and the lettuce is good on sandwiches,” he says.