Central Florida Farm Goes Vertical To Capture ‘Buy Local’ Market

Learning Curve

With no background in farming, how did Lawson educate himself on production? He says he first began studying the benefits of growing in tower systems. Of particular interest to Lawson was the ability to grow multiple crops in a vertical manner to maximize the space the farm occupies to get maximum use out of water resources. He estimates a water savings of 70% to 80% using the towers versus conventional growing. Less than one gallon of water is applied to an individual tower per day. And the towers lend themselves to U-Pick operations.

Square ground pots at Hydro Harvest Farms
Square ground pots were invented and built by John Lawson to make maximum use of the tower systems on the farm.
Photo by Frank Giles

“I learned by doing and jumping in with both feet,” Lawson says. “There was a lot of trial and error. And, oh Lord, I have learned a lot and I am still learning. I don’t regret it, but it is a lot harder and more labor intensive than I originally would have thought. You really have to love it to do it. We are constantly experimenting with different crops and production methods. I think in some ways I benefit at coming to this without a background in farming because I am willing to try different things because I don’t know any better.”

One of the bigger challenges growing U-Pick is timing plantings so customers have a steady stream of produce to pick. Lawson notes lettuce, which is a very popular item with customers. He says he has plantings staggered out so lettuce is in ready supply most of the time.

In addition, Lawson says he doesn’t plant crops that don’t make sense in the tower systems. Corn, which would take up a lot of space for up to 90 days and only yield one or two ears, is not a good fit. He also has learned to listen to what his customers want as he gained experience with the farm.

“When I first opened, I didn’t listen to customers as much as I should have,” Lawson says. “For instance, the first three years we were open, people would come in and ask if we had kale. I said no we don’t grow kale because it was not on my radar. So, finally the light bulb went off and I said maybe I should try to grow some kale. It is very popular and we’ve grown it ever since.”

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