Matt and Jerry Wyatt of Heartland Hydroponics in Marshall County, Ky., always had been traditional vegetable producers but wanted to better utilize their facilities throughout the year.
That's when they began considering hydroponic vegetable production as a way of extending their growing season.
"Traditionally when people think of hydroponics they think of growing in water, but that's not necessarily the case," Matt Wyatt said. "Basically it's an artificial medium, and all of our nutrients enter the plant through our water source."
Agents from the Marshall County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service have worked with the Wyatts in developing quality, hydroponically-grown fruits and vegetables since they started in 2003. It was then that Lincoln Martin, the county's agricultural and natural resources Extension agent, connected the Wyatts with farmers growing hydroponic tomatoes in Mississippi. The three traveled to Mississippi to tour some operations and asked a lot of production questions. After that visit, the Wyatts decided to get into the hydroponic business and began converting their greenhouses to hydroponic tomato production.
"This is a state-of-the-art production system that puts the consumer first and tries to provide them with what they want in a timely manner," Martin said. "This approach extends the growing season for Matt and Jerry Wyatt and allows them to produce a quality product, deliver it on a schedule in a quantity that's desired, and it's good."
As their new enterprise took off, the Wyatts continued to utilize the UK Cooperative Extension Service and the College of Agriculture's Plant Disease Diagnostic Laboratories.
"I have had several issues come up with identification of insects and certain plant diseases, as far as why this plant is doing this or not doing that," Matt Wyatt said. "I've sent those to (the UK Plant Diagnostic Laboratory in) Princeton, and we've come up with an analysis. I've had a lot of fertilizer and water analysis situations that I've looked into with UK specialists."
Martin added that Bob Anderson, retired UK greenhouse crops specialist, and Rebecca Schnelle, current greenhouse crops specialist, have visited the farm and shared ideas and comments with the Wyatts and helped them determine the proper amount of nutrients for their plants.
Wyatt's hydroponic tomatoes are marketed as a natural product and they take many measures to minimize the need for chemical sprays and promote water conservation. They implemented an integrated pest management program using beneficial insects to manage troublesome pests in the greenhouse. They also use bumble bees to pollinate the plants. Water is circulated in hydroponic lettuce production, which helps them nourish more plants with less water.
The Wyatts are currently growing about 6,000 tomato plants in approximately one acre of greenhouse space. Their products are sold under the Rebecca Grace label at Whole Foods, Value Market and Kroger stores in Louisville. The Wyatts also sell their produce locally to restaurants, school systems and to the public through a vegetable stand on their farm. Matt Wyatt said demand continues to increase.
Vicki Wynn, Marshall County family and consumer sciences Extension agent, also works with the Wyatts. She said the demand is growing for local produce because people are becoming educated about this technology and its benefits.
"Typically hydroponics was associated with an inferior product, but we know that's absolutely false, so this is giving people an opportunity to try hydroponically grown vegetables," she said. "They've been able to dispel a lot of those myths."
In the future, the Wyatts plan to expand production into different varieties and types of fruits and vegetables. Currently, they are experimenting with growing different varieties of tomatoes as well as lettuce and cucumbers.