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Growing food without soil

January 17, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Supporting your local farmers used to mean that you could only buy whatever was in season.

But thanks to hydroponic farming - growing plants without any soil - you can now get fresh, locally grown tomatoes in January.

"With hydroponics, you can pretty much grow whatever you want," said Gil Thurston, who manages Home Grown Produce, a Franklin County, Pa., farm that grows hydroponic produce, primarily lettuce.

Simply put, hydroponic farming is the process of growing plants in nutrient-rich water without soil, explained Annette Ipsan, the horticulture educator for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension of Washington County.

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The advantage, Ipsan said, is that the plants grow faster, the crop yield is greater and it's impossible to over or under-water. "(That's) one of the most common causes of plant failure," Ipsan said.

Thurston said the downside is it is expensive and high tech - the reason it's usually done commercially.

A quick Web search for hydroponic kits yielded products in the price range of $300 to $400, with more elaborate set ups costing quite a bit more - closer to $2,000. Ipsan said container gardening might be more practical for casual green thumbs, unless they like a new challenge.

Thurston, who is also affiliated with regional agri-marketing firm Earth N Eats, said local farmers have been growing hydroponically for nearly a decade to cater to off-season demand. But recently, hydroponics have become more popular as the "buy local" movement gained traction and as food-borne illness outbreaks have caused people to scrutinize where their food came from.

A salmonella outbreak this past summer prompted many local restaurants to stop serving tomatoes. That same summer, Washington County Hospital started purchasing hydroponically grown tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries and some lettuces from Home Grown Produce, said hospital spokeswoman Nicole Jovel.

Executive chef Joe Fleischman said the hospital goes through nearly 800 tomatoes a week during the summer.

"Using small (farms) we know who handles the food day to day," Fleischman said.

Thurston said everyday consumers can purchase hydroponic produce at Gordon's Grocery in Hagerstown and at Paul's Country Market in Waynesboro, Pa. Whole Foods Market also sells hydroponic produce, though the nearest store to Hagerstown is in Gaithersburg, Md.

Thurston said a hydroponically grown tomato costs nearly twice as much as the soil-grown ones you might see in major chain stores.

But the soil-grown tomato has probably traveled far and was picked before it was ripe, said Melissa Tewes, Washington County Hospital's clinical nutrition manager.

"You lose out on a lot of the vitamins and minerals," Tewes said.

Where to find producehydroponically grown

· Paul's Country Market, 6374 Nunnery Road, Waynesboro, Pa.

Sells hydroponics from May through December. Call 717-762-4840.

· Gordon's Grocery, 101 Cypress St., Hagerstown

Call 301-739-2957.

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