Growing tomatoes without using soil, it sounds impossible but that’s exactly what a 17-year-boy from Hayward, Wisconsin has put his life savings into doing.
The method is called hydroponics, which is the process of growing plants in water allowing better efficiency when it comes to feeding plants nutrient.
For Hayward resident, Brett Disher, gardening has been a long-time hobby. He says, "I started when I was ten or twelve I think."
What started off as a backyard garden and a few chickens, quickly turned into something more for Brett.
"It just didn’t seem productive for the amount of effort you got in so I spent a bunch of time on the internet and found hydroponics."
It’s a form of hydroculture, the method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent and in this case, tomatoes seemed like the right fit.
Brett and his father Ken Disher, explain the mechanics as they walk through the greenhouse, saying "pretty much all just recirculating our water down, from these tanks back here up to the top and pumps it all through. Brett explains. "You get perfect nutrient delivery to them, they always have water, they always have whatever they need so they grow much faster." It’s a series of pipes, pumps, and trial and error engineering.
Besides fast growing habits, there are more benefits to hydroponic growing.
"It’s way more economical, you know you don’t feel like you’re wasting," Ken says. The father and son say that growing vegetables hydroponically allow them to ripen longer, enhancing the taste and quality. And It takes a lot of upkeep to grow the perfect tomato such as making sure the blooms pollinate.
"Early in the season when there’s no bugs and stuff, we’ll go around and you’ll have to kind of shake the flowers and just vibrate them and whatever because we don’t get much wind in here or bees or anything," says Brett.
The high school senior puts in hours of research and labor to grow and harvest the tomatoes. He says everything he has learned about greenhouses and gardening has been on his own through internet research and working in his greenhouse.
The bulk of money put into the project has come from his own pocket, with a price tag of nearly $15,000.
Brett’s dad says, "it’s really his finances to win or lose. He’s really got his life savings tied up in here."
The father and son duo did research online and found a man willing to sell two of his old greenhouses in parts. After an auction bid, the Disher’s won the set.
Ken says he was skeptical at first about supporting his son’s gardening hobby. "I didn’t believe him. I used dirt, he used water and we had a bet. And in about a month, I gave up." Ken says after his son’s tomato plants grown through hydroponics towered over his soil grown plants.
But after seeing the end product, Ken says he’s proud of his son’s accomplishments, which includes making a buck.
Brett says pointing at ripe tomatoes, "I can pick these, about once a week we pick these and I mark them just to our local restaurants and stuff around here."
He packages and sells his tomatoes under the label ‘Disher Farms.’ Brett says he has a lot of local connection in Hayward and sells to local restaurants and grocery stores. The tomatoes are advertised as chemical free which has a draw for many customers.
Brett has been growing in the greenhouse since May and says since the start of growing, he has made a couple thousand dollars from sales.
It’s a project that has gone far beyond anything the Disher family ever imagined.
"I’m actually producing way more than I thought I would so now I have way more tomatoes than I know what to do with. It’s gone better than I planned but still, never good enough," says Brett.
Along with the greenhouse, Brett is currently raising 22 pigs for quality, hormone free meat. He says raising them himself is much more humane than factory markets.
He is hoping to keep the greenhouse going as late into the season as possible but is expecting to close down in late October.