‘Growing hydroponically just makes sense’
The tri-cities area that includes Prescott, Prescott Valley and Chino Valley, Arizona — like many places in the country— has a population that’s becoming ever more careful about where food comes from.
Patrick Wilcox, who owns Prescott’s Natural Wonders Farm, is hoping to be on the front end of that popular trend by selling hydroponic, locally grown produce at area farmers’ markets and to area restaurants.
“Everybody is getting more and more conscious of the food they’re eating and where it’s coming from, and they’re demanding more local produce,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox decided to join the small-farm movement as a way to piggyback on an existing vermiculture business, which he runs in conjunction with a landscaping company. “It was an easy entry,” he said.
He first began producing and using compost made from worm castings, also known as vermiculture, in his landscaping business. Then he started selling this compost at area farmers’ markets.
Worm castings are the nutrient-dense fertilizer created by earthworms as they move through the dirt. In other words, worm poo. While selling the worm castings, Wilcox noticed that many customers visited the farmers’ market with an eye for vegetables, not worm poo, and he wanted to capture that market as well.
He knew from the start that if he were to make a serious business out of farming, he couldn’t do it in the local soil. At 5,000 feet in elevation, with about 17 inches of rain a year, Prescott isn’t ideally situated for farming. “Unless you’re on a well — and you’ve got a very good well — it’s just not cost-practical to do it in the ground,” he said.
That’s when he found Bright Agrotech’s ZipGrow Towers. Over the last 18 months, he’s been learning everything he can about greenhouse farming and hydroponic growing, with current crops including lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, cilantro and other cool-season greens.
Wilcox is making a gradual, deliberate move into the farming world as he grows Natural Wonders Farm. He’s using 50 ZipGrow Towers now and estimates his greenhouse has room for a total of 150.
Over the next year, Wilcox is planning to add another 50 Towers while still running his landscaping business, expanding the vermiculture operation and becoming an expert in growing top-quality produce. In the meantime, he also wants to hone his sales skills, an area he said isn’t a strength but will be necessary as he grows.
Next steps include creating a brochure to advertise Natural Wonders Farm and meeting more chefs and restaurant owners. Wilcox sees sales to those entities as an avenue of potential growth and a way to carve a niche among other local farmers.
“I feel like going into the restaurants and later possibly into grocery stores will be the market I’m looking for,” he said.
He’s also working with one intern already and would like to add another couple interns to the Natural Wonders team.
Wilcox is hoping to maximize production on the acre of land he owns by growing outdoors as well as in the greenhouse. But even with a 10,000-gallon tank to capture rainwater, Prescott’s dry climate will always be a challenge for in-ground farming, and thus ZipGrow Towers will always be part of the equation.
“Growing hydroponically just makes sense,” he said. The same dry, sunny climate that makes farming a challenge also draws retirees from around the country. They’re bringing with them a demand for locally grown food, and Natural Wonders Farm is positioning itself to meet that demand.
Interested in building your own greenhouse?
Like Patrick, many find themselves growing in climates that are tough for year-round production. Greenhouses can be a great solution.
But finding all of the materials for a full growing operation gets tricky. The Greenhouse Market Bundle shows new farmers eactly what they need to get started, starting with production numbers and full system pricing and guidelines.
Want more information on starting a greenhouse? Watch the quick presentation and get the PDF below.