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

John Lawson of Hyrdro Harvest Farms in Ruskin, FL

John Lawson of Hyrdro Harvest Farms in Ruskin, FL, says serve the community and customers will follow.
Photo by Frank Giles

The idea of “buy local” means different things to different people. But for John Lawson and his wife Terrie it starts with community. He says serve the community, and customers to your farm business will follow.

Lawson’s Ruskin-based farm has done that and has built a loyal following in the 10 years since he and his wife started Hydro Harvest Farms.

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“When we bought this little piece of property, we really were not even thinking about agriculture,” he says. “But we came across this type of growing (tower systems) and my wife and I decided we would give it a try.”

Lawson had no background in agriculture and had worked for 24 years with a major beer distributor.

“I jokingly tell people that I went from beer to berries,” he says. “When we started the farm, my wife was still working with the U.S. Postal Service, but she has since retired. She takes care of all the books, our website, and our marketing efforts.”

Diversity Is Key

Like many tower-system farms, strawberries are a natural choice for Lawson’s U-Pick offerings. But, to keep the customers coming back, Lawson says you must have a good selection for customers to pick from.

Loofa plant at Hydro Harvest Farms

Loofa, which is grown on the fencing surrounding Hydro Harvest Farms, has become popular with customers.
Photo by Frank Giles

The U-Pick offerings include strawberries, lettuce, herbs, onions, kale, collards, mustard, chard, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, and green beans. A new popular addition to the farm’s offering is loofa, which is grown on the fencing surrounding the property.

“You have to be diverse as possible,” Lawson says. “For instance, right now there are no strawberries for customers to pick because of the hot December we had. If I didn’t have anything else growing, I might as well close the door on the farm.

“We try to grow as many things as possible. We don’t grow a lot of anything, but we grow a little bit of everything. I believe this is actually harder than growing a mono-crop because you have to be an expert or — pretend to be — on a lot of crops.”

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.”

Making It About Community

Interaction with customers and the local community is what makes Hydro Harvest Farms stand out, and the part of the job that Lawson loves.

“We want people to feel like this is their farm, and I think that they do,” Lawson says. “They enjoy the freshness and knowing where the food comes from. This is more than just a fruit stand or produce market, it is an experience.That is what agritourism is all about.”

John Lawson plays Santa at Hydro Harvest Farms

John Lawson bears a resemblance to a jolly old soul, which comes in handy for visitors young and older during the Christmas season.
Photo courtesy of Hydro Harvest Farms

Throughout the year, Hydro Harvest Farms offers customers multiple agritourism opportunities. Halloween is the busiest time of year with pumpkin sales and decorations to fit the season. Lawson also bears a resemblance to old St. Nick. So during Christmas, he dons his best red suit for pictures with visitors.
In addition to seasonal celebrations, the farm hosts multiple classes for customers teaching gardening tips, cooking, canning foods, and more.

“My wife sent out an email promoting a class she was teaching on how to make green smoothies,” Lawson says. “She titled the email ‘50 Shades Of Green.’ It was the most opened emails we’ve ever sent out.”

Regular email sends to customers on special promotions and other events happening on the farm are a big part of the marketing program for Hydro Harvest. Lawson adds social media and a company website also are a must.

“Every farm like ours needs to have a website and a Facebook presence,” Lawson says. “And, we send out a marketing email every week or two and have a subscription base of nearly 10,000. Those emails have a high open rate of 12% to 15%.”

A farm like Hydro Harvest can build a loyal base of customers who become more like friends, especially after years of hosting events aimed at building a sense of community around the farm. One way the Lawsons like to give back to the community is a special August promotion called Double Your Food Bucks.

Customers using EBT cards during August can purchase a certain amount of fresh produce, but the farm will only charge half that amount to the card. For customers who do not use EBT, there are 50% off coupons at the bottom of email promotions during the month to participate in the half-off promotion.

“You would be surprised at the need of some families, especially those with school age kids,” Lawson says. “During the summer months, they are not getting their school lunch, which might be their best meal of the day. We have been doing the August promotion for a few years now to help get healthy produce on these folks’ plates during the summer.”

The growing, the community, and the fun make it all worth while for the Lawson family, and puts the true meaning of “local” in buy local.

“If we weren’t having fun, it wouldn’t be worth doing,” Lawson says.

Getting Fresh From Florida

John Lawson says Fresh From Florida has been a big benefit to his farm in Ruskin. The marketing program offered by FDACS is a “must-have” according to Lawson. He says educational materials provided by the agency make for great handouts to the hundreds of school children who tour the farm every year.

Hydro Harvest Farms' International Flower and Garden Festival sign

Photo by Frank Giles

In addition, Hydro Harvest Farms is among local growers hosted at Epcot during the International Flower and Garden Festival. Fresh From Florida arranges the appearance by local growers during the event.

“We are among about 20 growers at Epcot, and that visibility has brought business to the farm,” Lawson says. “Everybody should join Fresh From Florida because it is a resource under-utilized by growers here in the state.”

“We participate in trade and community events in which we can engage members like Hydro Harvest,”says Melissa Hunt, a marketing representative with FDACS. “For example, we invite members to exhibit at trade shows with us at a reduced price so they can be part of a larger initiative they may not have had the ability to do on their own.”
Annual membership costs only $50, making the program a great value for any size farm.