Big Tex Urban Farms has seen the benefits of hydroponic growing in its efforts to become a better community partner.
Big Tex Urban Farms has exceeded beyond anything that co-founder Drew Demler could have ever imagined. Demler, who is the director of horticulture at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, said the growing operation got its start out of an interest by fair president Mitchell Glieber to become more involved with the Dallas community.
Demler said one of Glieber’s main objectives when he became president was to get the State Fair of Texas to be more active in the community.
“The goal was to be a better community partner,” said Demler. “With that in mind, Jason Hayes, who is the fair’s creative director, and I hatched this plan to start a vegetable garden. We wanted to utilize space that was not in use during the rest of the year when the fair isn’t going on. This space is primarily asphalt parking lots.
“We pitched the idea of growing in these specially-designed mobile grow boxes to use up some of that parking space to grow food that would be donated to the local community. We started with a small budget in 2016 using 100 mobile planter boxes to grow food outdoors.
During that first year we learned a lot about the soil, how to grow and ways to improve. We got some decent yields. More importantly we made some important connections with a couple community groups to whom we donated the food we produced.”
During 2016 all of the planting and maintenance was done by Demler and his full time staff of three people.
“During that first year I was really the only one who had much experience growing vegetables,” he said. “There was definitely a learning process for the rest of the crew. We learned when to plant crops, how to harvest and what it needs to look like when it is harvested.”
The food that was harvested the first year was donated to two local charitable organizations.
“Baylor Scott & White Health and Wellness Institute in Mill City, Texas, is our primary beneficiary,” Demler said. “Mill City starts about a mile down the street from the fair grounds. The institute hosts a farmers market for the community on Tuesday and Friday.
“A big focus of the institute is helping people with chronic diseases including heart disease and diabetes. One of the institute’s main objectives is to get people eating healthy, fresh vegetables. We donate vegetables to them and they in turn give the produce away. This is in a community where there really aren’t many other good options for fresh produce. Community residents have learned that they can show up on Tuesday and Friday and pick up lettuce, collard greens, Swiss chard, basil, chives and other vegetables that we produce.”
Prior to working with Demler, the institute had a contract with a produce supply company that provided fruits and vegetables shipped in from California and other outside areas where produce is grown. None of the produce was grown locally.
Another beneficiary of the fresh produce grown by Demler and his staff is Cornerstone Baptist Church. The church feeds the homeless six days a week.
“The church is involved with feeding the people who need food more than anyone,” Demler said. “The church had been receiving donated produce that was declined by different area grocery stores. They weren’t receiving anything that would be considered fresh and they weren’t receiving any greens or lettuces at all. We have been able to change that. A lot of what we donate to the church are leafy greens.”
Positive response leads to hydroponic production
Demler said growing and donating the fresh vegetables gave him and his staff an opportunity to develop good relationships with the organizations they were assisting.
“These community groups were real happy with what we were doing to assist them in their efforts to feed people in the community who really needed help,” Demler said. “We also received some good media coverage which helped generate more interest in what we were doing.”
Because of the positive response from the groups being helped and the media coverage, Demler said his budget for 2017 was increased considerably from what he started with in 2016.
“With an increase in funding, we expanded from around 100 mobile outdoor planter beds in 2016 to 529 by the time 2017 ended,” he said. “Also before the fair started in late September we installed a 30- by 15-foot hydroponic deep water culture tank in one corner of our largest 7,200-square-foot greenhouse. We also installed six 8-foot tall vertical tower gardens. This was our first venture into hydroponic growing. The greenhouse had been used to grow plants like palm trees and bougainvillea, and to overwinter hanging baskets, as well as be a really beautiful exhibit room during the state fair itself.”
Demler worked with the staff at Hort Americas, including Chris Higgins, Tyler Baras, Matt White and Jared Lee, to design and install the hydroponic production systems.
Expanding hydroponic production, systems
Demler said the amount of produce that was being harvested from the hydroponic systems got his attention right away.
“In the short amount of time that we had installed the systems and started growing, we were very impressed with the results,” he said. “Our total production indoors and outdoors in 2017 was around 2,800 pounds of produce. This year we have already grown over 2,000 pounds of produce. Over 90 percent of that has come from the hydroponic systems. By the end of April we will have exceeded what we produced for all of 2017. This is one of the main reasons that we’re going to expand our hydroponic systems. It is such a better and more efficient way to grow.”
Demler said the hydroponic systems that were installed in 2017 take up about a 50- by 50-foot area, which he considers to be a relatively small foot print.
“Another reason for expanding the hydroponic systems is the overwhelming positive response from the public during last year’s state fair. We are planning to turn the greenhouse into an indoor ag growing exhibit. This year the public will have access to the hydroponic systems all 24 days of the fair. We have plans to expand on our hydroponics and indoor growing set ups using more of the greenhouse space that we have. We currently have three permanent greenhouse structures and one greenhouse we put up and take down every year.”
Demler said he and his staff are in the process of deciding which additional type of hydroponic systems they plan to install.
“We definitely plan to add another deep water culture tank,” he said. “This tank is going to be slightly larger, measuring 15-feet wide like the first tank, but about 45-feet long. This will provide an increase in production space so that we should be able to crank out a lot more leafy greens by the end of this year.
“We are also going to add another production system so that we can grow hydroponic vine crops inside the greenhouse as well. This system will enable us to grow tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers if we choose. We haven’t chosen the system yet. We are doing the research to see what systems are within our budget.”
Another hydroponic system that Demler plans to add is a nutrient film technique trough system.
“Since we began using the hydroponic systems right before the fair started last year that didn’t give me a lot of time to trial the systems,” he said. “One of things I bring to this is a general horticulture view of knowing what to grow when. We have people telling us they have a hard time managing lettuce in NFT hydroponics systems during the summer because of the heat. So I want to try growing some bush beans and other crops that I haven’t seen other people grow. I want to see what different crops these systems can support. I’m thinking of growing mini bell peppers and dwarf tomatoes in the NFT set up.
“We not only want to be a facility that grows produce for the community—that’s our primary focus. But we also want to be a research facility as well. We want people to be able to learn about how to grow using these systems. We want outside groups to come in and participate and learn from our successes and our mistakes.”
For more: Big Tex Urban Farms, (214) 565-9931; info@BigTex.com; https://bigtex.com/urbanfarm.
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.