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Tomatoes in January?

Julie Fitzstephens wheels a bushel of just-harvested hydroponic tomatoes. Opposite page: Fitz’s Farms produces lettuces year-round, including this spring mix.
Fitz’s Farms grows year-round yumminess

When you enter the hydroponic green-houses at Fitz’s Farms in Mattawan on a cloudy fall day, you feel a bit like Dorothy opening the door to the Land of Oz.

You are greeted by a sea of vivid green lettuces and 10-foot-tall tomato vines with bright red tomatoes hanging down. What you don’t see among these abundant crops is soil; hydroponic farming involves growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water with plants’ roots often supported by perlite — a volcanic rock — or gravel.

Owners Dan and Julie Fitzstephens proudly smile as they look upon their immense indoor gardens and for good reason — this accomplishment is hard work.

“To grow inside a greenhouse is totally different than growing outside,” Dan Fitzstephens says. “I mean, it’s a totally different beast. You don’t have nutrients wrapped up in the soil.”

He knows a thing or two about farming. He grew up working on his grandparents’ farm and then owned and operated nearly 700 acres of his own in the Schoolcraft area, raising corn, soybeans and green beans. He did this while employed full time as a plumber at Pfizer Inc. But soon two jobs became too much, and he sold the acreage and purchased 15 acres in Mattawan.

“I took a year or two off (from farming) just going to work, which drove me crazy,” he says.

Years earlier he had built a greenhouse, so, after buying the Mattawan property, he hauled the disassembled greenhouse out of storage, raised it back up and entered the world of hydroponic farming. He attended classes on hydroponics at CropKing, a 34-year-old Ohio company specializing in controlled-environment agriculture and hydroponics. He planned to do hydroponic farming as a side job, but then his employment situation changed unexpectedly in 2015.

‘The deep end’

“They kind of tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, we’re eliminating your job,’” Fitzstephens says. “I’d been there 30 years.” But he and his wife transformed a negative into a positive by adding another greenhouse to their property. Then, Julie Fitzstephens, who worked as an administrator at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, proposed another idea.

“She said, ‘Hey, what do you think if I quit my job?’ Dan Fitzstephens says. “I was like, ‘Uh …’”

But, as she puts it, “they jumped off the deep end,” and she hasn’t looked back. Even on the days when she is hot and sweaty from working in 100-degree heat and thinks she can’t take another minute, an appreciative customer will arrive for fresh produce and it makes her smile.
“It just feels good,” she says. “It’s like, ‘OK, that’s why we do it.’”

The couple’s two hydroponic greenhouses are located on a five-acre portion of their land. One greenhouse, at 4,800 square feet, houses greens such as Bibb lettuce and arugula as well as several herbs. The greens grow in PVC channels in which water flows through via gravity. The farm has the capacity to harvest an astounding 475 pounds of greens per week. Julie says that it would take one acre, or 43,560 square feet of soil, to grow the same amount. They harvest the lettuce roots and all, and it will keep in a cooler for up to three weeks, she says.

“If someone buys it, it’s usually been picked that day or the day before,” she says. “It’s incredibly fresh.”

The second greenhouse is where they grow tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers. The tomatoes are grown in Bato buckets — about 400 of them — which are designed for growing vine crops and tall plants and hold soil-free mediums like perlite. The UV-resistant plastic buckets are formed with a small reservoir to prevent plants from drowning or starving. The tomato plants’ vines can grow to 30 to 40 feet when fully mature, and each plant produces tomatoes for approximately one year.

Local clients

The client list of Fitz’s Farms includes area restaurants such as Webster’s Prime, Full City Café, Chinn Chinn, Rustica and Latitude 42 Brewing Co. The farm business also sells produce to Bronson Methodist Hospital and privately run grocery stores and at local farmers’ markets, including the Texas Township Farmers’ Market. Last fall the Fitzstephenses received disbelieving looks from farmers’ market customers who saw their bright red tomatoes for sale out of season, causing Julie to erect a sign at their booth that said, “Grown in Mattawan, REALLY.”

That distinction is important to the couple, because, Dan says, there are “big differences” between a tomato shipped in from places like California versus a locally grown hydroponic tomato.

“First of all, it’s been able to vine-ripen on the plant,” he says. “Second of all, it hasn’t been gassed.”

Tomatoes trucked from other places are usually picked green, he says, and then exposed to ethylene gas to ripen so that they are red when they arrive on grocery store shelves. The Fitzstephenses use only non-GMO seeds, Dan says, and although their produce is not certified organic, they use only sprays that the FDA has deemed organic.

Dan Fitzstephens says hydroponic farming, which has been utilized since the 1600s, has other advantages. Not raising the vegetables in soil eliminates trouble with weeds, bugs and disease. Hydroponic vegetables also produce throughout the year rather than in one short growing season, and hydroponic lettuce uses 90 percent less water than what it would take to grow that same crop of lettuce outside, Dan Fitzstephens says.

All of this is not to say the Fitzstephenses eschew dirt. They also farm soil-grown vegetables such as broccoli, potatoes and green beans on several acres of their property.

Growing hydroponic vegetables takes a great deal of time, labor and attention, Dan says, especially in regard to nutrient upkeep and pH control, and it isn’t as “forgiving” as growing crops in soil. But the Fitzstephenses don’t work the farm alone. They have approximately 60 helpers who work seven days a week, from sunup to sundown, without complaint — or pay: bumblebees.

“We have a hive, and they’re the ones that pollinate (the plants),” Julie explains. “They save us a ton of time. Mother Nature is kind of cool.”

The beehives reside inside the tomato greenhouse, and when the Fitzstephenses raise the greenhouse’s sides to close it off in warmer weather, any wandering bees find their way home before dusk — or patiently wait outside if the greenhouse has already been closed up for the night.

“Somebody I knew was here and we were just talking and I go, ‘Hang on. I’ve got to let one of my employees back inside,” Dan Fitzstephens says, chuckling. “I opened the door, and the bee actually flew back inside, which made them kind of laugh.”

Lisa Mackinder

Lisa’s work has previously appeared in various Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Animal Wellness, Dog World, Michigan Meetings and Events Magazine, MiBiz, and other publications. Though having covered a wide-range of topics, Lisa most enjoys composing people-centric pieces, as well as those featuring nature and animals. She lives in Portage with her husband, and when not at her Mac, participates in outdoor activities, including fly fishing, gardening and hiking.

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