Ruskin couple’s fresh idea grows into successful hydroponic farm

By PAUL CATALA

RUSKIN − For 24 years, John Lawson worked for a Sarasota-based beer distribution company, five days a week.

But 13 years ago, Lawson and his wife, Terrie, decided to go green thumbs up, and he went from area supervisor to seeds, sun and sweat. In 2006, the Ruskin couple opened Hydro Harvest Farms, at 1101 Shell Point Road, one of the few fully hydroponic farms in south Hillsborough County.

Hydroponic farming is a method of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution. No soil is used, but plant root systems are fixed in stationary systems using mediums such as perlite, rockwool, clay pellets, peat moss or vermiculite.

Tomatoes are among the 30 to 50 types of produce grown by John Lawson at Ruskins Hydro Harvest Farms. | Photo by Paul Catala

Globally, the hydroponics market was valued at $23.94 billion in 2018 and will reach $27.29 billion by 2022, according Market Research Future, a firm which specializes in market reports related to agriculture and other sectors.

In the United States, according to IBIS World, which provides business information and market research on thousands of industries worldwide, the total 2018 revenue of hydroponics was $891 million.

Although what Lawson generates financially from his is only a minute fraction of those numbers, he says he still enjoys the work while helping the environment through conservation. He estimates a water savings of 70% to 80% using hydroponic growing tower systems – the ability to grow multiple crops vertically to maximize space on the farm and maximize use from water sources. His farm, which is less than an acre, supports 4 to 5 acres of plants.

John Lawson’s Hydro Harvest Farms offers a wide variety of freshly grown fruits and vegetables, part of the appeal for customers. |Photo by Paul Catala

In early 2002, the Lawsons read an article about hydroponic farming systems and without any previous experience in agriculture business, decided to give it a go. They built and opened the farm in the summer of 2006.

“We bought to speculate on it and came across (hydroponic) growing and thought it would be a good idea,” says Lawson, an Ocala native who graduated from East Bay High School in 1975. “It was definitely on-the-job training for us because I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what I could or couldn’t do.”

With words of advice from other growers and agricultural experts at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, the Lawsons developed one of the longest-running hydroponic farms in the area.

Hydro Harvest sells jams, preserves, syrups, butters, salsas and other goods made with fresh produce. | Photo by Paul Catala

Hydro Harvest, open for U-pick customers, also sells its produce in a farmer’s market and offers hydroponic instruction for home growers.

Growing in rows of towers are 30 to 50 types of produce: tomatoes, eggplant, squash, herbs, cucumbers, okra, celery, radishes, greens and six to seven varieties of lettuce, with no chemical pesticides or genetically modified seeds.

To help plants thrive, Lawson invented what he calls a “grow pot,” designed to allow another crop to grow in a shared space using excess water that falls from the primary plant. He says crops derived from this method includes root crops like potatoes, onions and carrots.  

In 2006, John Lawson and his wife, Terrie, opened Hydro Harvest Farms, at 1101 Shell Point Road, in Ruskin. | Photo by Paul Catala

At Hydro Harvest, the Lawsons – along with two part-time employees – also spend time considering other crop varieties and production methods, allowing for a steady stream of varied fruits and vegetables from which to pick.

That fieldhouse experimentation has worked to attract a list of regular clientele like Beth Rogers.

Near 11 a.m. on a humid August day, the women bought onions, eggplant, cucumbers and fresh loofa. Rogers, who lives in Ruskin with her husband, Craig, says she stops at Hydro Harvest once or twice per week. She adds that the “freshness of the herbs” and Lawson’s outgoing personality draw her in.

Each October, Hydro Harvest Farms hosts a community pumpkin patch. Children’s activities include a table to decorate pumpkins. | Photo from Terrie Lawson

“It’s convenient, it’s close and you get the freshest of the fresh because you’re picking it yourself. I drive down here a lot for organic vegetables,” she says. “I always stop here before I go to the regular grocery store; everything he has is what I need.”

Although he’s happy with the logistical setup of Hydro Harvest, Lawson says he is branching out to propagate and sell more landscape plants like crotons and hibiscus.

At 62, however, he says he is not sure how much longer he’ll remain in the agriculture business − none of his five children are interested in running the farm.

John Lawson tends to plants growing in towers in “grow pots,” allowing the lower plant to grow in a shared space using excess water from above. | Photo by Paul Catala

“I’d love to get it to a young couple to take over, but it will be me until I find someone like that or I decide I just don’t want it anymore – we’ll see,” he says while walking down a row of purple sweet potatoes. “I’m now in the coast and downhill mode.”

In October, Lawson opens the farm as a community pumpkin patch, and throughout the school year, he also opens for student field trips. In addition, Lawson portrays Santa Claus at businesses and functions across south Hillsborough every December.

For information on Hydro Harvest Farms, call (813) 645-6574 or visit hydroharvestfarms.com.

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