Young farmer makes plans for hydroponic growing system

By Valerie Shelton, Editor

Farmers are slaves to the weather. Even with potential El Nino rains on the way, Central Valley farmers are still suffering the effects of the five-year California drought—many of their wells have run dry and their thirsty fruit and nut trees haven’t yielded the high-quality crops that typically come from the “normal” Valley weather conditions.

Dealing with the drought is just another challenge local farmers have had to add to their list, though. Even if Mother Nature were to cooperate with ideal temperatures and moisture, a farmer’s job would still be far from easy. Even a tiny mistake—the wrong pesticide or chemical on the wrong plant at the wrong time, for instance—can be costly. Then, even the farmer who gets it right is still hard at work every day, waking up before dawn to plow his fields, eradicate weeds and prune his trees until it’s harvest time, and then the work only piles up more.

Local farmer Weston Presley knows these challenges all too well. The 2004 Clovis East High School graduate has been farming with his grandpa, uncle and cousin since he was about 10 years old on 200 acres of mostly almond, orange and cherry trees, with a few acres of watermelon crops, out on Lincoln and McCall in Sanger—a stone’s throw away from Clovis where Presley lives.

Like most local farmers, Presley said his family’s small operation has been impacted by the drought.

“We had two of our pumps go out so two of our wells are dry so we need to drill a new one which costs about $50,000,” he said.

Partially due to these water issues, Presley has decided to try hydroponic farming.

“Hydroponics has been around for a long time, but how I plan on doing it is different than what most people are doing,” Presley said. “My plan is to use freight containers. When you gut them and insulate them, you can grow up to an acre worth of crops inside one unit and the good thing about that is it’s all controlled. There is no pesticide use or herbicide use, there are no weeds and it’s all organic.

“The benefit as far as the water issue is it uses 80 to 90 percent less water because the plant is only taking what it needs, versus when you water out of the farm, you’re going to lose to evaporation or simply lose water just going into the ground because the plant is only going to take so much. You dump 30 gallons of water on it, but it’s not going to take all that. The hydroponic system recycles water.  The plants are gravity fed. A pump will pump up the water, the plants will use what they need and the rest will make its way down into the resovior which is pumping it back up and recycling it.”

A hydroponic system replaces soil with circulating water, efficiently delivering necessary nutrients to the plants, which are secured in place by a nutrient-rich piece of insulation within a track made of PVC pipe or roof gutters, all held inside a controlled environment, such as a container. Produce quality is not affected by weather and growing conditions can be precisely controlled inside a hydroponic system. Light is provided by LEDs and factors such as water, air quality and temperature can be monitored and adjusted from a smartphone.

Presley said the system can’t replace farming—he is still going to work with his family in the almond and orange orchards—but a hydroponic system works well for vegetables and smaller crops.

“It’s something that wouldn’t replace farming because you couldn’t grow an orange tree inside one of these containers, but you can do a lot of small greens, lettuces, cucumbers and tomatoes,” Presley said.

Aside from saving on water for these types of crops, Presley said the other aspect that excites him is that the system produces organic crops year-round. This is a big reason Presley said he wants to have a hydroponic system because he would like to be able to supply local restaurants and grocery stores with fresh, organic produce throughout the year.

“I’ve talked a couple restaurants to see if they are interested in buying locally or interested in my idea and where it’s coming from and a lot of restaurants are interested,” Presley said. “They are interested in things like basil, for instance, which many Italian restaurants use in pesto. Some don’t care about fresh because they would rather not worry about it, but there are some places that would love to buy fresh basil and fresh greens and they would be paying less buying it locally than having something shipped from somewhere else. There is a farm to table movement going on right now. It’s all about knowing where your food comes from and that it is fresh. When I get it going, I’d love for people to come see my operation to see where the food comes from.”

The only downside to Presley’s plan for the system is the initial cost—an estimated $35,000 to build each of the two containers Presley would like to start with. To help with the expense, Presley has started a GoFundMe campaign and hopes people intrigued by his idea will offer some financial support.

“In the last couple of months I’ve raised about $400,” Presley said. “With $73,000 as my goal, that $400 is not a whole lot, but it’s a start. I’ve written a lot of letters to people and different companies and I haven’t received a lot of response yet but I’m still trying. I want to have two containers that way I can do both greens and tomatoes and the $73,000 is kind of a safe number. I don’t know exactly how much it will all cost but I have an idea how much one would cost, close to $35,000 to build, so that amount would cover those two things and the plants, nutrients and such to be in production the first couple months before I start making some money. I could go get a loan, but I’m trying to stay away from that and see what else I can do to make this happen.”

For more information and to contribute to Presley’s hydroponic farming project, visit https://www.gofundme.com/clovisorganic.