Piedmont farm grows hydroponic business

GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. -- Okra and blackberries are thriving at Ingram Farms. But the latest crop at the Guilford County farm isn't growing out of the ground. It's growing out of cups within a maze of white pipes.

"When you farm, you look for something exciting to do," Rhonda Ingram said. "So this is our new exciting toy."

The looping pattern of pipes are a part of the newest venture at Ingram Farms. It's called hydroponics. It's unique because it's the only permanent outdoor hydroponic system in Guilford County. The Ingrams take seeds, put them in cups filled with material that can absorb the nutrient rich water that's flowing through the pipes and watch the vegetables grow. But Ingram adds it's not as easy as it sounds.

"A lot of trial and error," Ingram said. "But it's working. It's amazing and people like it. Last year we were selling it fast as fast as it was raised."

So this year, Ingram Farms can raise up to a 1,000 cool season plants like lettuce and Swiss chard. Vegetables you normally see later in the year are growing now because a constant flow of water is keeping them cool during the heat of summer.

"I have really started struggling with growing them in the field because they get hot and puffy," Ingram said. "But they seem to be happy over here."

And you have to carefully monitor the nutrients in the water to make sure the vegetables remain happy.

"I have to be able to provide that plant with everything it needs," Ingram said. "There’s no backup source like you might have in soil.”

The Ingrams put together a large hydroponic operation so they can meet the demand for locally grown greens that are tough to find during the summer. John Ivey, with Guilford County Cooperative Extension, says hydroponics can be a nice addition to traditional farming.

"Quite a few folks are setting up high tunnels and greenhouses and this is a great addition to one of those,” Ivey said.

With a little help, homeowners can set up their own hydroponic garden.

"You can design your own hydroponics for as cheap as $50 using pallets, gutters, a water pump and a Rubbermaid container," Ivey said. "This is accessible to anyone that wants to do it."

That's why Ingram says just go for it.

"You don’t have to have a degree in farming or science," Ingram said. "You have to have the desire to try and not be afraid to experiment.”