Michelle Keller has seen the future of vegetable farming, and it is hydroponic. Farmland prices are soaring. In Minnesota’s challenging climate, bringing fresh leaf vegetables to market much of the year can only be done under glass or other protection. But in Keller’s 42 x 132-foot greenhouse, with its two bays, 10,000 plants at a time are in production, with another 10,000 in nursery cubes, the seeds and seedlings cradled in rockwool, all of this greenery straining toward the light from its watery broth. It is an oddly chaste place; the fertilizers that feed Keller’s plants also inhibit blossoming and stimulate only leaf growth. The plants are perpetual preadolescents, tender and beautiful. No bolting here.
Many of you have eaten or at least gazed at LaBore lettuces or cress in the produce department. Keller’s greens arrive on their own roots, encased in plastic clamshells like something precious. They look like the platonic ideal of lettuce, each leaf perfect, full, soft. And because they remain on their roots, they remain alive—you can transfer them to bowls or vases to extend their lives at home.
Few garden-grown lettuces attain this almost eerie perfection. Keller explains why:
Plants grown hydroponically don’t have to work for their water and nutrients. They can grow faster.”
Selective breeding has created a class of plants that neither toil nor spin, and it’s these that hydroponic growers seek out. Other plants, Keller says, the ones that are genetically driven to go after what they need, are befuddled by hydroponic life, unable to make use of what they must work so hard to attain in outdoor soil: light, water, nutrients, heat.
Keller became interested in hydroponics’ humanmade environments while she was studying at U-Wisconsin River Falls, where she graduated in 1996. At the time, only a couple of companies sold commercial hydroponic set-ups, and she worked with Crop King to learn what she could about operating her own hydroponic farm. She set up her greenhouse in June 2004 in Faribault and has been running it ever since—and running is the apt word, because Keller’s successful business is almost entirely a one-woman operation: “I seed, transfer, harvest, sanitize, package, deliver.” She works 7-day, 70-hour weeks.
And she wants to do more.
She hopes to add two more bays to her operation and to bring in interns from local colleges on a yearly basis so she can share her knowledge. Hydroponic farming, she says, is far more sustainable than conventional American farming: despite using water as a growing medium, it is far thriftier of water as a resource: “One 1,000-gallon tank serves the whole greenhouse—everything is grown in it. The water gets reused for ten days, and then on day ten, I turn off the water, and the plants use most of that up. Two hundred fifty gallons are left, which I dump on my own property—that amount of water never makes it anywhere near my property line. I use far less water than the same crops would if they were grown in the ground.”
Despite its advantages over open-field farming, hydroponic farming has its own challenges; Keller says that at the last conference she attended, she was the oldest grower there, and she’s watched operations open and close.
When I opened, there was only one other hydroponic grower near the Twin Cities. Now there are four or five. Hydroponics isn’t for everybody. It’s expensive to get into. It takes a certain kind of person: someone who enjoys working for herself. Someone who’s stubborn and tenacious.”
This stubborn and tenacious grower is branching out in a new direction: “I’m going to specialize more and more in Asian greens. They were suggested to me by one of my earliest co-op customers, and I’ve had very positive feedback on the first red and green pak choi I’ve grown.”