It’s winter, and most growers and gardeners are thinking about everything except planting. But as Bob Dylan said more than 50 years ago — “The times they are a changing.”
Today, one fifth of all food distributed in America comes from urban farms, defined as the practice of cultivating, processing and distributing food in or around a city. Urban farming uses one-tenth of the water, on one-tenth of the land and grow crops 30 to 50 percent faster and with 30 to 50 percent more yield than traditional farms or gardens.
WNC Urban Farms of Waynesville opened this summer and a large part of its based on growing vertically.
WNC Urban Farms started out growing greens and vegetables on 40 10-foot-high, commercial Tower Gardens, in a small, unassuming greenhouse in Waynesville.
Using a new, urban way of farming, WNC Urban Farms is flourishing — growing in aeroponic Tower Gardens — without soil, toil and heavy equipment — and using a fraction of the water.
Plants grown in Tower Gardens are bathed in a mixture of water, air and a special nutrient solution. The solution ‘rains down’ through the core of the tower, directly on the plant roots, and is pumped back to the top of the tower to repeat the process. The perpetual feeding produces incredible growth rates.
Owner/operators of WNC Urban Farms, Gary and Trish Hughes, have been growing on three smaller family-size, Tower Gardens for many years — supplying the majority of their own produce, with plenty to share with family and friends.
Sharing seems to be the Hughes family mantra. In 2016, WNC Urban Farms was launched as a way to offer the bounty of the Tower Garden growing system with the community.
Off to a fast start
“We started the first seedlings on our seed table in July 2016, and our first harvest was in August, said Gary Hughes.
“We’re averaging 21 days for seedlings to be ready for the towers, and 21 to 28 days for produce ready for harvest,” he added. “We’re averaging a new harvest every 45-50 days.”
Up to now, WNC Urban Farms has been growing mostly commodity produce items in its indoor greenhouse area — including a variety of different lettuces, spinach, Swiss chard, herbs, arugula and kale.
Greenhouse lighting and a floor heat boiler help ensure produce is available year-around.
Local customers include Balsam Mountain Preserve, Frankie’s Trattoria and Boojum Brewing’s Tasting Room.
“It’s difficult to find good produce, especially in the off-season,” said Gary Cormann, executive chef at The Boarding House in Balsam Mountain Preserve. “WNC Farm’s produce is available year ‘round, and it’s so fresh that it’s still growing in the bag when I get it. I can use it at my leisure. I also love that it’s all natural and organic.”
“For me, it’s all about the ABC’s — arugula, basil and cilantro,” said Louis Perrone, owner of Frankie’s Italian Trattoria in Maggie Valley. You won’t find anything fresher the what’s growing at WNC Urban Farms. It’s the highest quality produce we have ever used.”
In the summer of 2017, WNC Urban Farms plans to add 40 additional commercial Tower Gardens on the deck adjacent the greenhouse. With the added outdoor growing space, WNCUF will grow pollenating plants, including tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, squash and more.
All the produce grown by WNC Urban Farms is non-GMO and 90 percent organic. Instead of traditional pesticide practices, WNCUF uses natural means. Last season, for instance 4,500 ladybugs were released to ‘police’ the greenhouse.
Grounded in the community
“The produce in grocery stores today comes from as far as 1,500 miles away,” said Trish Hughes. “We want bring that number down to 25 miles. That’s why our focus is on the local community.”
From the beginning, one of WNC Urban Farm’s best, non-paying customers has been The Open Door.
“We want everyone to have nutritious food,” said Trish Hughes. “Changing your eating habits can change your health.”
WNCUF is also working with Meals on Wheels to provide healthier, lower cost food options, and is building alliances with local schools and food banks.
Recently, a home-school group from Nashville, Tennessee, paid WNC Urban Farms a visit, and walked away with a much better understanding of healthier food options.
WNCUF is an ‘authorized seedling supplier,’ providing residential gardeners and local Tower Garden owners a close and affordable source for organic plant starts, and is working with several local communities about forming their own Community Tower Garden.
Healthier food options for all
Gary Hughes, who comes from a farming family in the Blue Ridge community in Shelbyville, Indiana, is a living example of the benefits of eating fresh, healthy food. To date, he has lost more than 100 pounds, adhering to a vegan diet. Trish Hughes has lost more than 60 pounds.
“WNC Urban Farms is a way to spread our health, happiness and success,” said Gary Hughes.
Where to get WNC Urban Farms produce
Starting in the spring, WNC Urban Farms will be selling produce weekly at the Waynesville Farmer’s Market. On designated days, seedlings will be available directly from WNC Urban Farms for local gardeners and the many Tower Garden enthusiasts in the area.
WNC Urban Farms is located at 66 Bradley St., in Waynesville.
For more information, visit www.wncurbanfarms.com.
By Paul Viau