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Hydroponic Experiment Thriving

August 1, 1985

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) _ The tender vegetables and lush herbs do not need soil to grow at this highly productive farm, one owners say soon will be the nation’s largest hydroponic garden.

With the hydroponic technique, there is no dirt - crops thrive in greenhouses where the environment is carefully controlled and plant roots are suspended in a fertilizer solution instead of soil.

The 1,200 cases of lettuce and other produce that leave the five-acre Archer Daniels Midland Co. hydroponic farm each day go to supermarkets, restaurants and hospitals, mostly around Chicago.

″We’re growing more produce, better produce and we’re getting a higher price for it,″ said Jerry D’Amore, general manager of the Rain Garden farm, which began in 1981 as an experiment.

ADM soon realized hydroponics could be profitable, said D’Amore, and decided to expand. By 1986, there will be 10 acres of hydroponic vegetables growing inside the arched-roof greenhouses - metal frames covered with translucent plastic sheets. That will make it the largest such operation in the United States, he said.

Produce buyers say customers like hydroponic vegetables because they are fresh, clean, free from herbicides, and not much more expensive than California field crops because they do not have to be shipped across the country.

But, the real key to success at the ADM hydroponic farm is free heat from the company’s huge alcohol production plant. Hot water - a byproduct of distilling grain - is pumped over to the greenhouses in the winter. Without it, the cost of utilities to heat the buildings would price hydroponic vegetables out of the market.

The Boston lettuce is the big seller - 800 cases of tender green heads every day - and it allows D’Amore to make contact with buyers who also will take some higher profit items, from basil and watercress to dandelions for Greek salads.

″You need market clout and that is lettuce; you make your money with the other items as tag-alongs,″ said D’Amore.

Hydroponic growing is efficient. A crop of Boston lettuce takes just 21-23 days, planting to harvest, and there are 12 crops a year - three times as many as in a California field, said D’Amore.

Lettuce seeds germinate in tiny holes in wet pads of rock wool insulation, which later will support the plants. Seedlings are exposed to artificial light ″to make them believe the day is 18 hours long,″ and are ″totally pampered″ with the right nutrients and environment, he said.

In their final stage of growth, the delicate heads of lettuce, one every six inches, form a green blanket that fills a large room. The roots dangle in shallow pans and 15,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer flows over them to provide nutrition.

Vines grow straight up to the roof along ropes in another room, thin- skinned seedless cucumbers dangling from tem. The harvest is 1,000 cucumbers a day.

There is ″no chart or textbook″ that provides a foolproof guide to raising hydroponic produce. A lot has to be learned through trial-and-error, he said. Mistakes are magnified because the crops are growing so quickly and intensely, said D’Amore. A little too much fertilizer could burn the plants in hours.

But D’Amore, who once operated a hydroponic farm for a prince in Saudi Arabia and then built his own such farm near Washington, D.C., is optimistic that the hydroponic industry will grow dramatically.

″It just takes a few successes to bring it to the forefront.″

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