By M.J. Callahan
It’s easier than you think to produce fresh vegetables at home.
When he was in college, Mitch Hagney, 22, looked for a way to help the most people. In agriculture, using non-traditional farming, he found he could help people more than in politics, his original interest.
Hagney graduated from Trinity University in May 2013 with two bachelor’s degrees, communication and international environmental studies,
Originally from New Hampshire, Hagney enrolled in Trinity on a debate scholarship, intending to go into politics. Then he found his passion in sustainable resources.
“I didn’t grow a plant till I was in college,” Hagney said.
He’s the CEO of Local Sprout, an urban vertical hydroponic farm in San Antonio.
Designing a growing space that stacks plants reduces the need for square footage and creates a large return in a small space, he said. Hagney’s whole operation includes a farming area in a food-grade shipping container, office, compost and a walk-in cooler that he has yet to use. Housed in an old warehouse in downtown San Antonio, his entire company uses only about 1,000 square feet.
Hagney and his partner, Pat Condon, co-founder of Rackspace, opened up shop in September and started producing in February, averaging 800 heads of lettuce a week.
“I built Trinity’s first hydroponic system and also built one in the back of my house. When I was throwing ‘keggers’ my senior year, people would come in to check out my lettuce,” he said.
Hagney’s indoor hydroponic system at Local Sprout eliminates fertilizer runoff, pesticides and exposure to the elements. Hagney keeps LED red and blue lights on the plants for 18 hours daily, allowing plants to sleep the remainder of the day. Hagney said the system is not hard to operate. “If I can do it, anyone can do it; the hardest part is setting up the pipes,” he said.
Hagney has a system on a drip or natural film technique, allowing the plants to do what a hydroponic system helps them do best: It uses less than 1 percent of water that traditional farming operations use.
The water just needs to stay around 70 degrees, the magic number for the perfect growing temperature, he said.
Local Sprout’s design is more complex and high-tech than necessary for a home garden, but for their large-scale use, it’s ideal.
A detachable hanging system allows water to feed the top plant, drip down to the roots and catch in a run-off drain to be filtered and recirculated.
“The reason people buy from me is not for environmental reasons; it’s because it’s hyper local, but most important, it tastes better because it’s fresher,” Hagney said.
He harvests a minimum of once a week and delivers fresh produce within one hour to local juice bars.
The taste is the biggest difference, Hagney said.
Hydroponic farming at home is easy with help from the only local hydroponic supply store, Texas Hydroponics and Organics. Texas Hydroponics and Organics sells the nutrients needed to properly feed plants hydroponically and the equipment needed to set up hydroponic production.
Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants without soil dissolving the nutrients needed.
The company also can outfit an aquaponic system with the exception of the fish and seeds. Aquaponic farming uses fish waste with additives to fertilize the plants. Fish can be ordered online, and seeds can be found at any local hardware store or nursery.
Vertical hydroponics like that of Local Sprout is usually constructed of PVC pipe or food-grade PVC pipe. Food-grade PVC prevents toxins from leaching out, Hagney explained.
The pipes are slit down the center lengthwise. After plants have germinated, Hagney slides plants into the slit and lets water and gravity do the rest. LED lighting mimics the sun’s rays needed for growth.
“A 2-feet-by-4-feet garden could produce 20 heads of lettuce and four tomato plants a month,” Shawn Kurth of Texas Hydroponics and Organics said April 3.
“When I was growing in my backyard last year in this rundown old college house, I had a small greenhouse with a deep water culture system, set in 32 lettuce plants and then didn’t check on them for two weeks, I came back and they just popped up, so it’s not very difficult to do at all.”
Hagney said a hydroponic system without a greenhouse could be built for about $120, using a planting container that floats in a tank of water with a little bit of the nutrient solution. Leafy plants are the most common to grow hydroponically.
Hagney said it’s important to make sure the plants get the right amount of nutrients and the PH of the water is not so acidic it damages root chemistry.
A indoor hydroponic garden consists of a 2-foot-by-4-foot tray; 45 liters of grow rocks for the plant to root in but not cling to; a quart of Biothrive, a nutrient solution that feeds the plants — only 2 teaspoons are needed for every gallon for two to three weeks — a reservoir; a pump to circulate the water; a air pump and a mini sunburst bulb to supplement available light if necessary.
For aquaponics, an air stone cylinder to filter the water for fish is required.
At Texas Hydroponics and Organics, this collection costs $316.83, all of which is reusable, Kurth said.
Chemistry becomes more interesting once you can use it, Hagney said.
“I think if you give kids a problem, and they can solve it with chemistry, they are going to learn it a lot faster than just giving it to them in the abstract,” Hagney said.
He said he plans on developing an urban farming course starting this summer for the nonprofit Venturelab, a hands-on academy focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship in youth through programs in science, technology, math, art and engineering, and entrepreneurship combined with mentorships in the community.
“If I wanted, I could grow hydroponic lemon trees, but I would make terrible margins and get killed in the market. Gardening and farming is all a question of scale,” Hagney said.
Aeroponics is another alternative growing technique that uses only an air or misting environment instead of soil or water. Hagney said that system is not suited to his operation.
“I just came to agriculture because I thought resource scarcity problems were important. I feel like I am making a difference by improving agriculture by using less resources,” Hagney said.
“Growing things that are tasty and beautiful is fulfilling, and kids experience this the same way without that ideology. Anything that kids can build or make themselves all of a sudden becomes much more appreciable,” Hagney said.
Hagney said he thinks of farming as magic.
“It does seem like magic; you put a seed in the ground and food pops up.
“All it takes is dirt, light and water.”