Hydroponic and loco
by Aliya Hall
It was Ron Maes’s 25-year background in construction finance that helped motivate him to turn his backyard hobby into a career. After seeing prime farmland being sold off into subdivisions all over the country, he saw the need and demand for local produce.
“I thought there had to be a better way to be quicker, faster and tastier,” he said. “How do I get produce to the table sooner, quicker than farmers – and wouldn’t need a thousand acres?”
El Loco Coyote Farm in Portland, OR, was founded in 2015 and focuses on microgreens and leafy greens that are grown using both soil and hydroponics.
Maes’s current production includes around 35 different varieties of microgreens and herbs, such as basil, baby and petite lettuce and a petite power salad (a mix that consists of kohlrabi, amaranth, arugula and basil that are harvested at the petite size). He has also started to grow peppers, tomatoes and fingerling potatoes.
When Maes first started his operation, he was only using soil, but the cost for the soil became too prohibitive. “I thought there had to be another way to grow [microgreens], even though soil gives you the best results of taste overall,” he said. “I got to the point where I was making my own soil and cutting costs down that I started looking at the hydroponics side.”
Maes bought a microgreen tray from AmHydro that he started growing on and used a combination of hydro and soil mixture. He said the initial investment into hydroponics is high, so he advises farmers who are interested in using the system to figure out what they want to grow and what their target market is.
“To get started with the system to grow microgreens, it won’t make much financial sense at first,” he said. “Start looking at cost and if doesn’t make sense to do it at first, start smaller and do it with soil on 10-inch-by-20-inch trays and see what will give you the best yield: soil or hydroponic system.” He said he bought his system, which consists of 12 grow trays, for $2,800.
For microgreens especially, Maes said there is a cost-benefit analysis growers will need to do for using a hydroponic system. One of the biggest benefits includes not wasting water – Maes is able to recirculate water as soon as its filtered – and it gets nutrients to the roots quicker. The biggest challenge with hydroponics, however, is using fertilizer, he said.
“The con is always having to rework fertilizer where most soil already has it,” he said. “When I harvest my microgreens from my soil, it will still get me that fertilizer I need in the soil and [it] can be reused again, and I have a little ecosystem.” He added that personal taste can also play a factor, because some people like the taste of the plants grown in the soil more than hydroponically.
Another challenge for El Loco Coyote has been trying to be organic while using a hydroponic system because “there’s a lot of hurdles you have to jump through,” Maes said. He explained that in recent years, the products he had been using that were formerly considered certified organic aren’t any longer. “It’s more of a challenge if you’re trying to go 100% organic and some restaurants and stores will only carry it if it’s truly organic,” he said. “It’s really tough to do on the hydroponic side. There’s ways to do it but it won’t be cost effective.”
Before the pandemic, Maes was harvesting 60 to 70 pounds of product a week for several restaurants and private chefs. Lately, he’s started to move away from restaurants because they normally use microgreens as a garnish, and if they aren’t used in a certain period of time, the plants are no longer considered microgreens.
“The microgreen has a limited window for it to be a true microgreen,” he said. “A restaurant wanted celery microgreen every week, but if they didn’t use it in their product, they didn’t buy it next week, and I told them I can’t hold [it] an extra week because it is no longer a microgreen.”
Private chefs, on the other hand, have been easier for Maes to work with. He said they will utilize the green for more than just a garnish, and will incorporate it into the main dish.
One of the biggest challenges to growing microgreens, Maes found, is educating the public. He said the general consumer will see the price tag of $14 and not think the product is worth it, especially in relation to other vegetables. “They don’t understand the benefits,” he said. “A microgreen typically has 10 times more nutrition than an adult plant.”
Another financial challenge is the cost of buying seeds, Maes said. He doesn’t buy enough product to get the benefit of the price and that in turn impacts his selling point. “How can I get cost down and make it more affordable to the public?” he pondered.
While there are pros and cons to both growing microgreens and using a hydroponic system, Maes said that the reality is that the U.S. is “losing farmland all the time” and it’s going to be important for growers to start experimenting on how to produce food quicker without needing lots of land.
Now, Maes is considering expanding El Loco Coyote Farms’s offerings. Earlier this year, a snowstorm that hit Portland destroyed his greenhouse and growth system, so he is in the process of rebuilding and determining if he will focus on another product. “What other products can I grow and where’s the next step? That’s where I’m at now,” he said.
The most rewarding aspect of his operation though, is being able to food people. With many consumers purchasing produce from out of the country, he enjoys helping the U.S. economy and local consumers.
“Getting to feed families that don’t have the means to grow their own fresh vegetables,” he said. “To be able to grow something that I can give to local people – to me, that is the most satisfying.”