Dirt Free Farming: A steadily growing industry for steadily growing food

James Miller from Blackberry Pond Farm out of Martin, TN started dabbling in the art of dirt free farming using a variety of aquaponic and hydroponic growing mediums in several greenhouses on their farm in Northwest Tennessee since 2016. They grow a variety of leafy greens, including micro greens, kale, beet greens, sorrel, swiss chard, arugula, bok choy, and spinach, as well as a variety of herbs and fruits such as strawberries and tomatoes.

Mr. and Mrs Miller have a very integrated set up,” stated Luke Winters, LFN Research and Evaluation Intern, “I was very impressed by the innovations that Mr. Miller has created to aid his operations.

Why Hydroponics?
Hydroponic farming offers a number of benefits to farmers and local consumers:
• Superior taste, quality, appearance, uniformity and extended shelf life of vegetables
• Less water and less fertilizer are needed compared to outdoor farming
• Pests are easier to manage with biological controls, such as beneficial insects, reducing the need for pesticides
• Plant nutrition is easily controlled within the nutrient tanks to provide a high level of nutrition
• No weeds, no cultivation, no soil-borne diseases
• Higher yields in a shorter period of time
• Controlled environment allows harvest of fresh, local vegetables year-round

Miller hydroponic growing system cultivating spinach, lettuce, kale, sorrel, swiss chard, cilantro and lemon balm.

Hydroponics, simply defined, is the growing of plants without soil in a water and fertilizer solution containing the necessary nutrients for plant growth. It is not a new science. Work in this area was being done by researchers as early as the 1600’s. In the early 1930’s, W.F. Gericke, of the University of California, did laboratory experiments in plant nutrition for the commercial scale. The word “hydroponics” was derived from two Greek words, “hydra“, meaning water and “ponos“, meaning labor, or literally, water working.

Why Aquaponics?
Aquaponic farming also offers a number of benefits to farmers and local consumers:
• Environmentally responsible with low water usage and low power usage.
• The primary inputs to the system are Fish food and water.
• Little to no Chemical usage. Aquaponics requires no synthetic fertilizers and few pesticides.
• Many of the plants that thrive in Aquaponic growing are very easy to grow.
• Low susceptibility to pests and diseases
• Timely crop turn around

Miller aquaponic growing systems cultivating cabbage, lettuce, parsley, strawberries and lavender.

Aquaponics is a farming method that combines the benefits of aquaculture and hydroponics. A nitrifying bacteria convert the wastes that fish produce into nitrogen which then serves as an organic nutrient source for the plants through their roots. The water passes through a hydroponic plant growing medium for filtration then recirculated back into the fish tank for reuse. With a natural ecosystem that recycles water continuously, an aquaponics system uses 90% less water versus traditional farming. Additionally, the system is self-sustaining which requires low maintenance and zero pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides.

Aquaponics systems are sustainable and environment-friendly, as there are no toxic wastes and run-offs from chemicals. Ultimately, aquaponics systems can help food growers maximize food yield. This is possible by harvesting both fish for a protein source and fresh plant produce.
• Increased crop production per square foot versus traditional farming
• Multiple crops and fish can be grown from the same system
• Fish can be harvested as an additional food or revenue source

We are continually trying out new ways to improve our systems,” says James Miller, owner of Blackberry Pond Farm,” so we can provide the community with consistent production in order to sell to restaurants and institutions.” The Miller family sells their products at the Martin Farmers Market during the market season and directly from their farm. You can contact the Millers via their Facebook page, by phone(731) 587-5336 or email millerdad66 at gmail.com.

Student-Illustrated Harvest of the Month Calendars Now Available

Healthy eating choices are on everyone’s mind as the new year begins, and with the help of several creative Weakley County students, keeping a daily record and making those choices will be easier.

The Harvest of the Month Calendar and 6-pack of cards are available for $10 each and will support future Farm to School Programming through the LFN at https://nwtnlfn.org/hotm-calendar/

The Harvest of the Month Calendar is a collaborative effort of the Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network, Weakley Arts Can, and the Weakley County Schools Nutrition Department and Coordinated School Health. More than 80 entries illustrating those harvests were produced by students from across the county after the competition was launched in October, Farm-to-School month.

With a list of the Northwest Tennessee-grown and harvested fruits and vegetables that make up the Harvest of the Month emphasis, teachers introduced the possibilities and then students used colors, paints, and markers to illustrate their entries. A panel of judges from the collaborating entities selected the works that make up the inaugural spring edition of what organizers hope to be an annual project.

Winners were announced at the January Weakley County School Board meeting on Thursday evening where the six-month calendars and a six-pack of greeting cards were revealed to the public for the first time.

Student artists attended the January Weakley County Schools Board meeting and were recognized for their work. Samantha Goyret, Executive Director of the NWTN Local Food Network, and Trista Snider of Weakley County Schools Nutrition Department presented each with their finished product. Seen here are (from left to right) Trista Snider, Samantha Goyret, Emily Baker, David Watson, Angelique Killebrew, Tracey Bell (representing Joseph Zimmerman, Jon Gardner, Allie Rogers, Melanie Needham (representing Kinsley Smith), Benji Snider, Megan Lovell, Danielle VanCleave.

Calendar winners, their grades, teachers and schools are: cover art of strawberries, Allie Rogers, 6th grade, teacher Kelsey Reed, Martin Middle School; January, greens, David Wilson, 10th grade, teacher Angelique Killebrew, Westview High School; February, butternut squash, Joseph Zimmerman, kindergarten, teacher Becky Jackson, Martin Primary School; March, frozen fruit, Kinsley Smith, 2nd grade, teacher Sherry Hatchel, Dresden Elementary School; April, asparagus, Benji Snider, 5th grade, teacher Melody Hopper, Gleason School; May, strawberries, Abigail Owens, 2nd grade, teacher Sherry Hatchel, Dresden Elementary School; June, blueberries, Meagan Lovell, 2nd grade, teacher Danielle VanCleave, Sharon School.

The two winners whose art makes up the pack of six greeting cards are also from Killebrew’s 10th grade at Westview — Elle Ingram and Emily Baker.

Standing with LFN Executive Director, Samantha Goyret, this young lady represented Sharon School from Danielle VanCleave’s 2nd grade class during the Weakley County School Board Meeting. Her drawing was selected out of 80 entries. It represents June in the Harvest of the Month calendar, sponsored by Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network, Weakley County Farm to School, Weakley Arts Can, UTM, Weakley County School Nutrition, and Weakley County Schools.

“With over 80 entries from K-11th grade from Weakley County Schools, this was a very hard contest to judge because all of the entries were wonderfully creative,” said NWTLFN Executive Director Samantha Goyret who is also a member of arts-focused Weakley Arts Can. “We are thrilled about the high participation and look forward to growing this important program throughout our communities but especially with area youth.”

The teachers who had the highest participation rate were Killebrew, VanCleave, Hatchel and Martin Primary’s Zann Wortham.

The calendar, which covers the remainder of the school year from January – June 2020, was designed by NWTLFN graphic design intern and recent University of Tennessee at Martin graduate Devon Coble.

The cards and calendars will be for sale for $10 each with all proceeds supporting Farm-to-School endeavors through the NTWLFN, the nonprofit whose mission is to catalyze actions that are increasing access to locally grown and produced foods.   

Since August, the Weakley County School Nutrition program has been posting Harvest of the Month featured posters in each cafeteria across Weakley County.

“This community-wide coordinated program’s goal is to encourage healthy food choices by increasing exposure to seasonal foods,” said Snider, who helped oversee the school cafeteria promotion. “We are encouraged that so many students participated this year and anticipate even greater participation when we launch the competition for next year’s school year calendar.”

More information about the Harvest of the Month program, recipes, and informational posters can be found at https://nwtnlfn.org/programs/harvest-of-the-month/. To order calendars or cards, visit https://nwtnlfn.org/hotm-calendar/.

Karen Campbell
Communications Director

Weakley County Schools