Reno-based Nevada Naturals uses hydroponics, a system that grows vegetables in a bed of water rather than dirt. The plants sit suspended on a table with their roots dangling into a bed of water that is constantly being circulated to provide the nutrients necessary for growth.
“It is not anything new,” co-owner Tom Blount said, referring to the Babylonian and Aztec gardens that used the same technology. “The rest of the world has been doing this for some time.”
The business’s two operational greenhouses, tucked away off of Valley Road in Reno, produce about 6,000 pounds of produce per month per greenhouse and each use about 30 gallons of water per day. Nevada Naturals plans to bring two additional greenhouses to full operation in the near future. According to Blount, the hydroponic method uses about 70 percent less water than outdoor farming.
Blount said that he believes this method of growing is much more environmentally friendly and efficient than shipping the produce to Nevada from California.
“Everything we get here is shipped from California and that takes diesel fuel,” Blount said.
The greenhouse has grand plans for growth. After completing an energy use study, Nevada Naturals will be installing solar power in September. The greenhouses now consume about 25 amps of electricity per day.
Nevada Naturals has been a backyard business run by Tom and John Blount for the past two years. Two months ago the brothers formed a partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno, which was interested in studying the alternative growing method.
“We have noticed that the lettuce is bigger and healthier,” Blount said, adding that the produce seems to taste different. Blount also advertises a longer-than-average two-week shelf life for his lettuce.
Now his observations are being tested by the university’s agriculture department. UNR is in the process of studying the nutritional differences between hydroponic growing and traditional soil gardening.
Interns from the university’s school of agriculture, biotechnology and natural resources have just recently begun work with Nevada Naturals, according to Ron Pardini, associate director for the Nevada agriculture experiment station.
“For this part of the country hydroponics is fairly new,” Pardini said. “They would be the first in northern Nevada to show that we can do year-round veggie production.”
Various universities across the country are conducting research on hydroponics. According to Blount, the leading research university on the topic is the University of Arizona.
In a study done by the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Arizona, Merle H. Jensen said, “The technology of hydroponic systems is changing rapidly with systems today producing yields never before realized. In the last four years, nearly 40 greenhouses have been built in Colorado, Nevada and Arizona. Many more hectares are planned, not only in the Southwest, but in Mexico. The future for hydroponics appears more positive today than any time over the last 50 years. I sincerely believe hydroponics will be fashionable again.”
A group of students recently gained approval to grow an organic garden at the university’s fields on Valley Road. According to Pardini, they will be comparing the nutritional values of those vegetables to those grown hydroponically.
The chemistry department has also asked to get in on the experiment, Blount said, asking if they can play with the plant’s chemical intakes.
“The chemistry department wants to add chemicals to some of the plants to see what they can change,” Blount said. “They are thinking they might be able to make it sweeter or spicier, etc.”
The hydroponic method is strictly controlled and does not allow for unidentified minerals to enter the plant, as opposed to soil planting where every aspect of the soil cannot be positively identified. The greenhouse is also able to operate year-round.
With the help of the university, the brothers are preparing a presentation for the United Nations World Health Organization which they hope to take before the UN next year.
“This greenhouse could feed 1,000 people,” co-owner John Blount said.
The Blount brothers hope that the low cost and ease of operation will provide a solution to ease hunger in struggling countries.
“We look at it as an economic opportunity for the green section of the economy,” Pardini said. “One of the goals of this college is to provide a research base to provide economic development in the agriculture sector.”
At home, the brothers sell their vegetables not only at farmer’s markets, but also to local merchants including Butcher Boy.
For the Blount brothers, the idea began in Hawaii where they owned a Mexican restaurant and were worried about the rising cost of produce.
“A friend grew hydroponically and suggested it,” John Blount said.
From there the brothers moved to Reno and started their produce business.
Blount said that the biggest surprise through the business’s growth has been seeing just how much it has caught on in the Sparks/Reno area.
“The biggest surprise has been seeing where it started and where it is going,” Tom Blount said. “I love what I do. You can see where all of this goes and you can experiment. No day is ever the same.”