A massive system of gutters fills the greenhouse, as does the echoing trickle of running water. Barry Thoele’s crop grows here, thrives, but you won’t find any produce sprouting from soil. Thoele, owner of Barry’s Cherries Hydroponics Produce in Staples, is a longtime practitioner of hydroponics, the technique of growing plants in nutrient-rich water solvent, rather than soil. Thoele is passionate about hydroponics, and through the classes he offers, he hopes to proselytize the non-traditional growing method to areas far and wide. In the near future, that could include the Mille Lacs community.

Learning curve

Thoele’s career hadn’t started in hydroponics. Originally, he had been a fishing guide. Eventually, he’d decided the income was too spotty to raise a family. He transitioned into the bait industry after becoming frustrated with an inconsistent bait supplier.

It was the bait industry that lead Thoele to hydroponics. In the process of designing a fish farm, he realized that raising the fish would create an excess nutrient load. Hydroponics had proved a means of redirecting and using those excess nutrients. Currently he drew about half the nutrients used from his bait farm while purchasing the other half.

Thoele had first began working with hydroponics in the late 80s. His operation was largely informed by his own research, as there had not been a lot of schools or outfits working with hydroponics in the U.S. at that time. Much of the equipment he used was self-constructed. While he could have invested in a $40,000 commercial setup, he reflected, he had always felt it was important to learn what he was doing firsthand and build off of experience. “Hydroponics isn’t like growing in the ground,” he said. “There’s a learning curve to it.”

These days, Thoele said, the science had advanced to the point of using plant-specific nutrients, which offered better success than the general nutrients of when he first started. He also said the equipment was becoming much more widely available.

Fruits of the labor

Thoele had started his operation through steady, but slow expansion. His first system had just four gutters, working his way up to 70 plants, then upgrading to a 240-plant system. His current main greenhouse, built about five years ago, was capable of growing 2,620 concurrent plants.

Demonstrating the operation of his growing system, Thoele lifted a plant to show the root system running through the gutter below. Nutrient-rich water was fed through the gutters as well. His main greenhouse had four pump systems, one at each corner. Thoele said he had learned to work redundancies into the system. Each gutter was also fed by two lines of water. Though the building was solar powered and initially built to grow year round, Thoele had not found it economical to heat it. 

“The interesting thing about it,” he explained, “is if I were growing the same amount of romaine in the ground, it would require seven acres. This [greenhouse] is 3,000 square feet.” When it came output for his romaine lettuce, Thoele said he could adjust the arrangement of his gutters to harvest up to 6,000 heads a week.

Another advantage of the hydroponic system, Thoele noted, was he didn’t need to rotate his crop. “The building has been growing lettuce all five years since I built it.” He would be able to grow his produce in the same location forever.

Working inside his hydroponic greenhouses, Thoele said he was able to screen out pests and animals, as well as protect his crops from inclement weather. With a laugh, he also added that he never had to bend over to weed his crops.

One thing Thoele noted about the process of hydroponic growing was its sensitivity, but added that it was also equally responsive. If he noticed a nutrient deficiency, he was usually able to correct it before it ruined the crop.

Commercially, Thoele said he was able to sell his crops to food hubs, hospitals, school districts, restaurants and through local sales from the farm. In addition to his romaine, he grew variety of crops including cilantro, dill, parsley, basil, kale, cucumbers and tomatoes. He was in the process of setting up a new greenhouse for strawberries.

Hydroponic future

“I’d like to see the comeback of tasty food,” Thoele said. “...tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, strawberries that taste like strawberries, not stuff that’s been refrigerated and has half the flavor.” He also observed how the loss of small farms had undercut local economies. For Thoele, hydroponics held a solution to both issues.

“I think if people tried hydroponics and tried the produce,” he said, “they’d figure out this is as good as anything they can grow in their own garden. And they can grow it easier.”

Thoele has been offering courses on hydroponics for a number of years. His hope was that if more people adopted hydroponics, they could all join together and form cooperatives. “We can share knowledge,” he said, “and do research to make it better.” Cooperatives, he added, would provide the opportunities for growers to purchase their supplies in bulk and at a discount.

He had been asked to run a workshop for the Back to Basics event at the Happy Dancing Turtle Eco Camp near Pine River. He had also offered such workshops at the Central Lake College campus near Staples. Currently he offered three to five classes a year, and he wasn’t certain he had time to offer more.

Further reflecting on his work with hydroponics, he added, “I’ve always been a staunch believer that if you stop moving forward, there is no stagnation. The world passes you by.”

The details for Thoele’s hydroponics class for the Isle area were, as of yet, tentative. He suspected the soonest he could offer the class was this September. He suspected he would be working through the University of Minnesota Extension office to set it up and advised those interested to watch for forthcoming details.

Motivated and curious, Barry Thoele has worked for years in frontiers of plant cultivation. He is a staunch believer in the potential hydroponics holds for local produce growers. Through his work to make the methods of hydroponics more accessible, he aims to see it spread, whether it be to Mille Lacs or beyond.

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