Fresh365, a hydroponic farm atop Whistle Hill in Soldotna, is looking to innovate how farmers and restaurateurs do business on the Kenai Peninsula.
Owned by Henry and Mary Krull, who own and lease 2 1/2 acres at the Soldotna site, Fresh365 is just as the name indicates — a business that grows fresh vegetables year-round, which is particularly ideal during the winter months in Alaska.
Hydroponic farming is a method of growing food without soil. Instead, it uses a nutrient-rich water solution to cultivate plants and vegetables.
The Krulls have lived 20 years in Soldotna, but just began business on Whistle Hill in January with the opening of Addie Camp restaurant. Krull said he purchased the farming module, which bears a resemble to a Conex container, in August, and planted the first seeds Sept. 1.
The Addie Camp restaurant that houses the hydroponic farm sits behind the restaurant. Addie Camp customers dine in a 1913 train car that is attached to the restaurant. Fresh365 provides Addie Camp fresh produce on a year-round basis, and also will cater to other businesses around town.
The key words there are year-round. Krull explained that his business is not the first hydroponic farm on the peninsula, but is the first to grow year-round. Krull said the biggest advantage to hydroponic farming is the ability to grow fresh and organic veggies all 12 months, and grow a lot of it. Instead of growing food on an area of land, hydroponic farming allows food to be grown in vertical rows and walls to maximize production, with the plants roots being held by a felt wicking strip and a nylon cover.
Hydroponic farming also uses about 10 percent of the water that ground farming does, and the plants take about six to seven weeks to fully mature into healthy heads of lettuce, cabbage and kale.
With four walls of seeded columns that stand 8 feet tall, and with 240 total columns stacked almost 30 feet across, the Krulls’ growing module allows the business to grow upwards of 7,200 individual plants on 240 square feet of vertical space.
Q: Why venture into hydroponic farming?
A: “I was lamenting how in the summer time we get fresh produce, because I grew up gardening. As we got closer to opening the restaurant, I was thinking, ‘We’ve got to be able to get decent produce and herbs and things.’ And I was going to start on a small scale at home and try to grow for home use and see how we can do it to supply the restaurant.
Then I came across this purpose-built farm, that was all set up to grow. I found this company (Modular Farms, Co.). I literally did a Google search on hydroponic farming and came across this company that makes these containers and thought, that’s just perfect. I don’t know the first thing about the lights, what they need, how far apart to put them, what kind of ventilation you need, but this company was able to master all the aspects of hydroponic farming and have been able to present it as a plug-and-play package.”
There’s a company in Anchorage that recycles old conex containers. I like the idea, but you take an old, grungy shipping container and turn it into a farm. And they’re smaller; you can’t grow as much in it, and I don’t know how they fit the ventilation system in it.”
Q: Will customers know the difference between your vegetables and traditionally farmed vegetables?
A: “Yes, unquestionably. As good or better. I think this is an attractant to the restaurant because people will want to come to the restaurant knowing that what we serve there is grown right here.”
Q: What kind of vegetables do you grow?
A: “We have romaine lettuce, premium leaf lettuce — otherwise called Salanova — kale, spinach, and five different herbs — basil, mint, dill, chive and cilantro, and we just got thyme also.”
Q: Is there a reason the vegetables grow under a vibrant magenta LED lighting?
A: “They’ve just determined that’s the optimum wavelength and frequency of light for growing hydroponically. It’s on for 18 hours a day, so they get six hours of night time.”
Q: Do all vegetables harvested go to Addie Camp?
A: “No, we’re going to grow far more than we can use in the restaurant. We’re selling to the community, to any businesses who want them. We’ve got a commercial customers and restaurants.”
Q: Do you sell directly to the public?
A: “We do. We have people walk right in and they ask for two heads of lettuce and 2 ounces of basil, and we go and pull the lettuce off the wall and clip the basil. We will be open to 1 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.”
Q: What is the benefit of another business buying food from you?
A: “Because, number one, it’s grown right here. Number two, in many regards, it’s better than organic, because it’s grown pesticide free. Organic is kind of a misnomer. There’s certain, strict criteria you have to meet to make something organic, and growing in soil is one of those criteria. So this doesn’t even qualify as organic, but in many ways it’s better. It’s grown right here; it’s fresh. There’s no pesticides, and we pluck it here and sell it same day. So it’s literally farm to plate on the same day.”
Q: Is there a financial benefit for you and interested businesses around town?
A: “Maybe not. This is going to be more expensive than stuff you get from the Lower 48, but the freshness and the flavor, you can’t beat it.
The financial benefit is tough to figure out now, because we’re new to this, this company is new. But on paper, the company can show, based on their own records, you can make a profit doing this. You can sell this and make a profit, which is important.
Not necessarily for me, I’m not looking really to make a profit. I’m looking to have a profitable business, so that others in the community … I can encourage others to get a farm and prove I can make money off of this. And, you can supply you and your community with whatever needs you have without having to source yucky produce from the Lower 48.”
Q: Do you believe this can be a sustainable business?
A: “I hope it to be, just so other people can get interested in it and doing it. We’re going to be here and continue doing it for our own restaurant. It’ll have to be (a success); we have to pay the thing off.”
Q: Is there a plan to sell your product outside of the peninsula? Perhaps to the Anchorage area?
A: “No, but I would entertain that. But what I’m trying to do, first of all, is meet our own selfish needs. We (Krull’s family) eat a lot of greens, so having access to fresh stuff year round is important. That’s where I got the idea.
When we opened the restaurant, I realized there’s no way we can sell this garbage that we buy at stores to people. We have to do something different, so the idea of the farm came along. This thing is a growing machine. It’s going to grow far more than we can consume at home, far more than our restaurant can consume, so we want to provide for the community as well.”