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Delaware entrepreneurs start growing crops in water

Bill Jordan of Millsboro is an accidental farmer who's growing crops without soil. “I was going to make alcohol from corn or peaches to supplement fuel when fuel prices got stupid,” Jordan recalled, but he quickly realized that was not profitable.

As part of his research, though, he saw that some hydroponic farms use what’s left of the corn or peaches from the alcohol-making process as a fertilizer. “That’s what led me to it,” he said.

About 15 years ago when he lived in Maryland, he started taking courses on hydroponics and visiting hydroponic farms. He built his own greenhouse and supplemented his income by building greenhouses for others. After moving to Delaware, he started Fresh Harvest Hydroponics in Millsboro, specializing in a variety of hydroponically-grown lettuces and herbs.

The plants are raised in three climate-controlled greenhouses. The largest has the capacity to grow 50,000 heads of lettuce at one time.

“COVID really hurt us,” Jordan said. “A lot of restaurants just are not buying. Right now, we’re just doing farmers markets and onsite sales, trying to keep our head above water.” He and one employee are able to maintain the operation, but before the pandemic, the business had several other employees.

However, Jordan said hydroponics has been a profitable business. “It’s done well for me. It cost me a certain amount to start, but I had it paid off in about a year,” he said. “If COVID ever lifts enough, if people aren’t scared to go back to restaurants, I’ll do pretty well.”

Christel Folke is an applied agriculture instructor at the Owens Campus of Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown. She said while hydroponic start-up and maintenance costs are the main hurdles, the process has a long list of advantages.

“It’s a controlled environment. The grower has complete control of the lighting, heat, humidity, water and nutrients. A lot of diseases usually come from soil, but with hydroponics you eliminate most of that risk. You still have some pests and disease, but it is easier to control, and we use natural methods,” Folke said, speaking about the college’s hydroponic system.

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