Hydroponics Operation Spurs Innovation in Rural Sampson County


Wendy and Jeff Woolard in front of their climbing cucumbers. (Yes, Jeff is also an NC Highway Patrolman.)

Wendy and Jeff Woolard in front of their climbing cucumbers. (Yes, Jeff is also an NC Highway Patrolman.)

Wendy and Jeff Woolard of Autryville, NC sell honey and hydroponically-grown produce to local markets in Sampson and Cumberland counties. This is their first year producing vegetables for market. They were disappointed by the quality of produce they found in local stores, much of which was imported when it was possible to grow the same types of vegetables locally. They decided to take the initiative to get fresher, higher quality vegetables onto the plates of local consumers.

Through extensive research, they found that they wanted to work with hydroponics in order extend the growing season and improve yields on their produce. They did both online research and a great deal of talking with hydroponic farmers in other areas. They also took a tour and conducted an interview at NC State University in the aquaponic/hydroponic ponds with Tyler Nethers, who offered insights on how their farm could expand in the farm-to-table arena and with NC Farm Fresh. It appears that the Woolards will be the first in their county to grow produce year-round in a hydroponic greenhouse. (While there are other indoor, hydroponic farmers in the region, the closest they were aware of is in Harnett county.)

20150625_102209

The Woolards applied for an Agricultural Reinvestment Fund grant to help them with constructing new grow beds and adding other components for experimenting with two different hydroponic systems. With plans to grow the business, they designed the greenhouse to have ample space for grow beds. It can also be extended to include additional square footage.

IMG_1092 (1)

One of the systems they are using continuously circulates water through the grow beds where the roots of the plants are submerged. The other system, set to a timer, floods the grow bed periodically with nutrient rich water, and the bed slowly drains while the growing medium absorbs the nutrient-rich water like a sponge. Their plan is to observe the two different systems and determine which makes the best use of water and nutrients for the greatest plant yield.

Thus far, the Woolards have successfully grown and sold their lettuce crops directly to customers as well as to a nearby restaurant in Autryville.

IMG_1096 (1)

The Woolards hope to develop more relationships with area restaurants and grocery stores. They also plan to obtain a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification that will allow them to sell their products to larger buyers.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers are currently in production. The summer annuals grew very quickly in the greenhouse, producing marketable fruits by April, significantly ahead of time compared to typical fruiting in a field grown system.

The Woolards plan to avail themselves of the competitive advantages of the hydroponic system and obtain premium prices for their high-quality produce.

20150411_193131 (1)By producing vegetables through hydroponics, the Woolards are bringing an innovative agricultural practice to their area for other growers to learn from and emulate.

Wendy looks forward to share their experiences and knowledge related to the research and commitment required for hydroponic farming both with students involved with local FFA Chapters and farmers. One of the family’s long-term goals is for their children to continue the hydroponic way of farming in the future.

The Woolards will hold an educational event for farmers later this season. Please contact Jean Willoughby at jean@rafiusa.org for more information and to RSVP for the event.

The Agricultural Reinvestment Fund is generously supported by the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.