Jesse Adkins was working a landscape design and installation job in Pelzer, South Carolina when he saw a sign by the side of the road that read, “Hydroponic Tomatoes.” His curiosity piqued, Adkins sought out the grower, Paul Lee. Lee entertained questions about his operation and hydroponic growing that provided Adkins, a 35 year landscape design and nursery industry veteran, with the impetus to take on a new career challenge.
“It seemed to be a profitable way to grow and offered a way to use marginal land to grow a large amount of clean, healthy produce on a small footprint,” Adkins says.
Under Lee’s tutelage and after taking a short course in hydroponic growing from Mississippi State University, his confidence grew. When Lee retired, Adkins took the plunge and bought his greenhouse and growing equipment. He also procured a USDA loan to buy a second, larger greenhouse to accompany the one built by Lee, and by 2006 his fledgling hydroponic venture Hurricane Creek Farms was up and running.
However, despite his years of researching and learning about hydroponic growing, there was still a steep learning curve to contend with in the operation’s early days. In his first year Adkins started 1,600 plants, and between pruning, harvesting, and learning to do his own marketing, he was barely able to keep up with the work.
“Starting that big was a rookie mistake,” he says.
The next year, the farm started a smaller number of plants in the fall for the winter market and then a second round for spring. The workload became more manageable, and Adkins was able to tailor harvest times to when demand was highest.
“The business model changed from growing large quantities and wholesaling to focusing on the retail market and concentrating on when the largest quantities would be needed,” Adkins says.
This adjustment lead to focusing on year-round and off-season crops sold through farmers’ markets, local restaurants, and the farm’s own farm store, which also sells complementary local products like syrup from Hughes Sorghum Syrup Mill and dairy products from Happy Cow Creamery. According to Adkins, the consolidated retail strategy has been a successful means of earning a higher profit while growing less produce.
But growing less produce still means growing a lot of food. Hurricane Creek Farms now has three greenhouses producing lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and herbs, with a fourth greenhouse on the way for strawberries.
Adkins grows almost entirely with natural light, counting on supplemental metal halide lighting only for his year-round lettuce crop, though he is also considering adding lighting for his strawberries and his five to six tons of winter-grown tomatoes.
Unlike some hydroponic operations, Hurricane Creek Farms is deeply connected to its soil as well. Adkins’ grandfather ran a water-powered corn mill on the same creek that runs through the property today, and Adkins has stewarded that heritage into a viable second revenue stream for his farm by raising two heritage strains of field-grown corn for grits and cornmeal, the yellow Pencil Cob Corn and the white Truckers’ Favorite.
“These are old varieties that have a lot more flavor, and give us a little leg up because they are unusual,” Adkins says.
This year they are increasing the corn crop to supply Dark Corner Distillery in Greenville, which will use the corn to brew moonshine.
The farm also keeps honey bees and Angus cattle, most of which are raised for seedstock.
Though hydroponic growing remains the farm’s focus, Adkins’ dabbling in diversification allows him to keep alive the curiosity that begat the farm a decade ago. And though he still has to work hard to keep ahead of all the work, Adkins is quick to admit that the work itself is often its own reward.
“Once in a while you’ve got to sit down and look at what you’ve done and admire what you are growing now,” he says. “Otherwise you are just in there picking and dealing with the plants every day. You really don’t notice them until you do sit back and look down the road and see nice tomatoes hanging on the vines and the lettuce growing nice and green. I guess that’s the most enjoyable end of it.”