Industrial agriculture has allowed farmers to maximize the potential yield of their crops for centuries. But it has done so at a major cost to the environment — a cost characterized by a steady decline in soil productivity, reduced water quality, elevated levels of carbon dioxide, habitat loss, and more.
Unfortunately, the negative consequences of industrial agriculture are set to worsen in the coming decades as the national population grows and urban sprawl continues to swallow large swaths of productive farmland. The American Farmland Trust, a group working to promote healthier farming practices, estimates that 24 million acres of agricultural land have been developed since 1982.
As a solution, an increasing number of entrepreneurs are turning to controlled-environment agriculture (a combination of engineering, plant science, and computer-managed greenhouse control technologies) to optimize plant growing systems, plant quality, and production efficiency.
One company that’s leveraging the power of CEA is Tyger River Smart Farm.
The Greer-based operation grows a variety of lettuces, chard, kale, and basil through the use of hydroponics — the method of cultivating plants without soil by instead using a nutrient-rich solution to deliver water and minerals to their roots.
“I don’t have a problem with people who adhere to conventional farming methods,” said Ryan Oates, owner and founder of Tyger River Smart Farm. “But I do think growing crops with hydroponics is more beneficial to both the consumer and the environment.”
Growing a business
Despite being the first person in his family to farm, Oates is no stranger to plants.
Oates studied plant biology at Clemson University and conducted numerous research projects at the Genomics Institute. He then enrolled at Miami University in Ohio to pursue a graduate degree in plant molecular biology but decided to drop out after becoming disenchanted with academia.
Upon his return to the Palmetto State, Oates spent several years as a financial planner in his father’s business. He then worked in commercial cabinetry for nearly a decade. In 2012, Oates stumbled onto the concept of hydroponic farming and decided to install a system in an existing greenhouse behind his parents’ home in Duncan.
“My mom loves to garden, so she built the greenhouse as a hobby,” Oates said. “But she was no longer using it, so I thought I would give hydroponics a try. It just seemed like something I would enjoy doing as a full-time job.”
Oates eventually outfitted his mother’s 1,300-square-foot greenhouse with fans, an evaporative cooling system, a propane heater, overhead LED lights, and hydroponics equipment. He officially launched Tyger River Smart Farm in August 2013. But the new venture didn’t come without challenges, according to Oates. A power outage, for instance, stopped the flow of water for about two hours and decimated about 70 percent of his crop. Oates outfitted the greenhouse with a generator shortly after.
Following the first harvest in February 2013, Oates had to give away most of his produce to neighbors due to a lack of customers. But then Tyger River Smart Farm was accepted into the TD Saturday Market in downtown Greenville. The market, which runs on Main Street on Saturday mornings from May 6 through Oct. 28, has become a signature event since its launch in 2002 and typically features more than 75 vendors that sell farm-fresh produce, baked goods, meats, cheeses, seafood, and other specialty foods.
“We owe a lot of our success to the TD Saturday Market,” Oates said. “The market not only helped us sell our produce that summer. It also helped us get our name out there and gain new customers.”
Tyger River Smart Farm has since become a vendor at the Greer Farmers Market and Hub City Farmers Market in Spartanburg, according to Oates.
The farm also sells fresh produce to a variety of local restaurants and grocers, including the Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery in Greenville, Tandem Creperie and Coffeehouse in Travelers Rest, The Farmer’s Table in Spartanburg, Stella’s Southern Bistro in Simpsonville, Cribbs Kitchen in Spartanburg, Restaurant 17 in Travelers Rest, Adam’s Mobile Market in Easley, and GB&D in the Village of West Greenville.
Farming as a science
As the farm’s reputation and customer base continued to grow over the years, Oates realized that Tyger River Smart Farm would need to scale to survive.
In November 2016, Oates expanded his operation by constructing a 13,000-square-foot greenhouse and 3,500-square-foot harvesting facility on 30 acres in Greer. The expansion has increased the farm’s production capacity tenfold, according to Oates.
Oates said the new greenhouse relies heavily on automation. The facility features natural gas heaters, recirculating fans, exhaust fans, mechanical vents, and an evaporative cooler that aids in controlling the temperature and humidity. It also features a retracting shade system that helps with temperature control and light levels.
“Traditional farming isn’t easy,” Oates said. “But our CEA system requires us to monitor our plants on a real-time basis and watch how they react to different conditions. It’s much more process-oriented, so all the automation really helps.”
He added that the farm’s greenhouse uses carbon dioxide generators, which enrich the surrounding air if the levels become low, and more than 100 LED lights, which provide supplemental lighting during the winter months when solar light levels are too low for growing crops. It also uses an environmental controller, which is responsible for sensing environmental conditions and integrating all of the equipment through computer logic to produce a consistent environment year round.
As for growing the produce, Tyger River Smart Farm employs a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) system, a soilless technique that bathes the roots of the plants in water infused with carefully monitored nutrients.
Oates typically begins the process by purchasing seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine or Paramount Seeds in Florida. The seeds are then germinated in a propagation room, which is completely enclosed and controlled with central heat and air.
After basking in the pink glow of LED lights for one to two weeks, the seedlings are relocated into nursery channels in the greenhouse, which sits on a well and 600-gallon underground tank. The water from the tank is then mixed with nutrients and sent down the channel, where it flows over the roots of the plants. Excess water is then collected at the end of the channels and returned to the water tank.
The nutrient water is then pumped from the main storage tanks back into the plastic channels, according to Oates. Thus, no water or nutrients is ever wasted. The same environmental controller in the greenhouse is responsible for maintaining optimum nutrient and pH levels in the storage tanks.
When the produce is harvested, it is packaged and sold with the roots in order to maintain the plant’s lifespan and nutritional value. During the peak of the season, Oates harvests between 8,000 and 9,000 plants a week, but he continues to produce plants all year round.
“The best part about hydroponics is that I get to harvest plants during the winter months when other farms are buried under the snow,” Oates said. “It definitely helps me stay ahead of the competition.”
The farm’s hydroponic system also has various environmental benefits, according to Oates. About 1,500 square feet of the greenhouse, for instance, is dead space reserved for an insect screen, which allows the farm to not use any toxic pesticides, insecticides, or herbicides during the growing process. And the recirculation process from the farm’s NFT system uses about one-tenth of the water a traditional farm usually uses. And since soil is not used, there is no chance of contamination through runoff.
Tyger River Smart Farm also utilizes various methods to conserve energy. Last year, for instance, Oates purchased and installed a large solar array behind the greenhouse that’s capable of producing enough electricity to power the entire operation.
Planning for the future
While hydroponic farming can be more lucrative than traditional farming and beneficial to the environment, it can also be challenging. Plants, for instance, require over a dozen essential nutrients that must be administered according to species, growth stage, and local conditions, such as water hardness.
“Hydroponic farmers have to understand how plants and nutrients interact in order to be successful,” Oates said. “We use a lot of automation, but we’re still dealing with living things that react to the environment. Luckily, I have a background in plants and can tell pretty quickly whether or not I need to make an adjustment to the system.”
Oates has hired three full-time employees since launching the farm in 2012, but he still spends up to 70 hours a week tending to plants in the greenhouse. “Hydroponics is a double-edged sword,” he said. “We get to farm year-round, which gives us a leg-up on the competition. But we don’t really get vacations or holidays because we have to get the work done when the plants demand it.”
The industry forecast, however, makes all the hard work worthwhile, according to Oates.
The U.S. hydroponic industry has grown consistently the past five years and is projected to continue into 2022, according to market research group IBISWorld. Industry revenue rose 3.4 percent to a total of $848 million the past five years ending 2017. Its outlook declined to a yearly rate of 0.2 percent until 2022.
Oates hopes to reach new customers in the coming years by selling produce through local distributors. The farm has already partnered with a wholesale distributor to sell basil at numerous Ingles supermarkets across the Upstate and Western North Carolina.
He also plans to expand the farm by constructing another 13,000-square-foot greenhouse in 2019. “It will just be an addition to what we have now,” Oates said. “We really want to become an industrial operation, and we’re pretty close to that now, but this addition will pretty much complete that transition.”