Growing Tall: Hydroponic towers provide plentiful harvest
Cascading towers of lettuce, arugula, beans, peas and peppers create a marvelous sight in a Madison County valley surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains foothills.
On a farm measuring less than 10 acres, Jimmy Sparks found a fulfilling second career growing produce with a unique hydroponic tower system.
“I jumped into farming with both feet,” said Sparks, who left a 25-year career in the wine and catering business. “Call it crazy, but I’m glad I did. We are still experimenting every year, and that’s the fun of it. I think you need to learn something new every day.”
J. Sparks Farms started as a U-pick strawberry operation. However, Sparks quickly discovered the market for vegetables was even better.
“The demand for greens and tomatoes far outweighed the demand for strawberries,” he said. “We can’t grow enough tomatoes to meet the demand. We’re still a small-scale farm, but this is enough for us to handle and to make sure we’re doing it right.”
The hydroponic tower system allows Sparks to grow an abundance of produce on just 1 3/4 acres. If planted directly in the soil, it would take about 15 acres of land to grow the same amount.
Each vertical Styrofoam tower has five tiers with four planters per tier. Instead of soil, seedlings are planted in a 50-50 mixture of vermiculite, which holds water, and perlite, which helps with drainage.
Sparks “feeds” plants three to five times per day, depending on the season, to ensure they receive needed nutrients.
“During the day, they’re just like a baby; you have to feed them every two-to-three hours,” he said.
Nutrients are added to the water flowing through 14 miles of irrigation pipes. Sparks said he uses 5,000 gallons of water a day, but without the tower system he’d have to use 70,000 gallons.
Seedlings are transplanted starting in May, which means produce is usually available from the beginning of June through mid-October, depending on frost.
“We plant in stages, so we are constantly pulling and replanting to always have a crop,” Sparks said. “We don’t have any molting problems with our lettuce, kale, spinach or arugula, so we can actually grow those all season long.”
Sparks said he has always enjoyed food, so the jump from serving food in Huntsville to growing food on the farm was a natural progression. With his two children grown, he and his wife Becky packed up and moved to the farm in Gurley. That was 12 years ago.
“I thought he was crazy,” Becky said. “It was a big change to move from a neighborhood to the country, but now we both love it. I can come and go as I please. It’s still a new adventure every day.”
It’s an adventure they share with their family including son Brad, daughter Anna, son-in-law Matt, and granddaughters Ila, 2, and Lucy, 4 months.
“Farm life is fun, and I’m looking forward to our grand babies working out here one day,” Becky said. “Ila loves the tomatoes. We even call the small tomatoes Ila’s tomatoes, and she always wants to go see if they’re ready to eat.”
In addition to tomatoes and greens, J. Sparks Farms grows green beans, purple hull peas, squash, okra, zucchini, cucumbers, eggplants, bell peppers and fresh herbs. They sell from the on-farm store Tuesday through Saturday and at three Huntsville farmers markets.
Sparks said the most satisfying part of the job is knowing he provides consumers with healthy food.
“I love our customer base,” he said. “We offer a product that was picked the same day or, at most, one day before they buy it. It’s rewarding to see the plants grow and to always learn new things. I can’t find any negatives with this kind of work. We’re extremely blessed.”
For more information, visit jsparksfarms.com.