Sunday, August 01, 2010

Hydroponics is bringing food production back to local communities

Hydroponic farm caters to 'locavore' movement

By Clare Howard
(Peoria) Journal Star
July 31, 2010

Kevin Kilgus explains the sustainability of his central Illinois geothermal hydroponic operation this way:

- A head of lettuce grown in California requires 100 gallons of water and is shipped an average of 1,500 miles. A head of lettuce grown at Living Water Farms in central Illinois requires less than 5 gallons of water, is grown without chemicals and is consumed within 100 miles. It's shipped with roots intact bundled in a plastic bag with enough water to keep the roots alive.

"You harvest our lettuce when you take it out of your refrigerator and cut off the roots," said Kilgus, an agronomist who started Living Water Farms two years ago with his wife, Denise, and daughter and son-in-law Natalie and Mark Schneider.

All eight of the Kilgus children are involved in some capacity.

The operation, 65 miles east of Peoria outside Strawn in Livingston County, is part of a growing local food movement that seeks to highlight the advantages of local food for the regional economy, health and environmental sustainability.

"Local food has been overlooked in the past as a tool for economic development. That's changing," said Wes King, policy coordinator with Illinois Stewardship Alliance.

"A recent study of Sangamon and surrounding counties found that if consumers bought 15 percent of their food regionally from CSAs, farmers markets and farm stands, that would provide $100 million in new farm income. Local food doesn't cost more when you look at the indirect economic benefits. Why are we exporting our money to California and Florida when we can keep it and circulate it in Illinois?"

Living Water Farms sells through Naturally Yours in Peoria and Bloomington, Heritage Farmer's Market near Pekin and Dave's Super Market in Fairbury. It is used by chefs in Chicago and central Illinois. Wheaton College buys produce from the farm. Soon Whole Foods will begin carrying the produce at its 30 Chicago-area locations.

"Our main crop is lettuce, Asian greens and micro sprouts," said Denise Kilgus. "We wanted something clean and natural where we could work together as a family."

She expects the operation will ultimately have up to five full-time employees and four part-time employees. Planting and harvesting is done every week year-round.

Denise Kilgus began gardening conventionally as her family grew, supplementing the food budget while her husband earned his bachelor's degree at Kansas State University in Manhattan and his master's at University of Illinois in Champaign.

"The children worked with me in the garden, and I discovered there was another way to do this. Wow, there was a way to grow naturally with no chemicals," Denise Kilgus said. "Part of our farming ethic is that we could work together, and it would be good for us and good for others."

The family researched hydroponic greenhouses and geothermal technology before working with Hydrosun Hydroponics in Minnesota on construction of their greenhouse.

"We have a recirculating system. We're using less water than we originally expected," Kevin Kilgus said. "'Some hydroponics have gotten a bad reputation because a lot of chemicals were added to the water. We use no chemicals, and there is no chemical drift or chemical runoff."

Steve Froehlich, the ag engineer who started Hydrosun Hydroponics, said 98 percent of lettuce sold in the United States is grown in California and Southern Arizona where it is sprayed with pesticides every three to four days.

"An underlying factor for starting Hydrosun Hydroponics is bringing food production back to local communities," Froehlich said. "This is a way to keep people on the farm."

His systems are in operation throughout the United States and in Canada, Mexico and the Middle East.

The Kilgus family is particularly focused on keeping disease and insect pests out of the greenhouse. Anyone entering the geothermal greenhouse at Living Water Farms is given cloth booties to pull on over shoes.

Family members and employees have specific shoes worn only in the greenhouse. Ultimately, a new addition will include showers and specific greenhouse clothing to wear in the growing areas.

Air circulating from the outside passes through filters to keep out insects.

Denise Kilgus said the family has tested how long the produce can last after it leaves the greenhouse.

"The minimum shelf life is incredible. Lettuce will stay fresh and crisp for five weeks," she said. "It tastes great, looks nice and lasts a long time."

Walking down one side of the 100-foot long structure, she passed towers of vertically growing edible nasturtiums and strawberries, trays of borage, anise hyssop and violets.

"It can be therapeutic working here with the smell of fresh green growth. This wheat grass is used for juicing," she said passing verdant trays, walking on past rows of curly cress, pea shoots, arugula and scarlet runner bean flowers.

"These are the micro greens. They're petite greens that are tastier and stronger flavored with more nutrients," she said.

A number of Chicago chefs use Living Water Farms' little cucumbers for pickling.

The family plants seeds in organic peat and coconut hull pellets bathed in trays of water. By putting four varieties of lettuce seeds in one pellet, the greenhouse grows "lettuce bouquets" ready to sell about five weeks after sowing.

Family members all multitask. On a recent Tuesday morning, Stuart Kilgus, 14, was working on a screening system on the ceiling of the greenhouse. When a semi-truck pulled up, he switched to helping unload packaging materials.

"When you look at the state of the Illinois economy, why not look at how to keep food dollars here," said Mark Schneider, Stuart's uncle and a partner in the operation. "As we market and grow, we could expand two or three times what we have now. We have 16,000-plus plants growing here, 5,000 to 6,000 heads of lettuce and the potential to grow more."

He said hydroponic growing in Illinois uses a resource in critically short supply in California and uses it more conservatively and sustainably.

The family has proven that hydroponic geothermal greenhouse production with supplemental lighting in winter is economically viable in central Illinois, but they cite an additional benefit.

"We are getting the younger generation involved with growing food in a sustainable way," Denise Kilgus said. "It's amazing how many people have no idea where food comes from.

"Everyone working here thinks about sustainable agriculture. Everyone buying and eating our produce thinks about sustainable agriculture. These are values our family feels very good about."

Information from: Journal Star,

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