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LaBore Farms: Hydroponics in Action

By Susan Palmquist

LaBore Farms’ owner, Michelle Keller, supplies most of the Twin Cities area co-ops with local fresh lettuce and greens throughout the winter.LaBore Farms’ owner, Michelle Keller, supplies most of the Twin Cities area co-ops with local fresh lettuce and greens throughout the winter.

Wander through the greenhouses at LaBore Farms and it’s easy to forget that we’re only in the second decade of the new millennium. It’s there at this Fairbault, Minn., business that you can catch a glimpse of what owner Michelle Keller believes is the future of food production.

While crops such as lettuce and spinach might look familiar, how they’re grown is probably new to many of us. Look closer at these vegetables and you’ll see they’re rooted not in soil but water. Hydroponics is the official name, and it’s an intriguing way to grow fresh local produce during the winter months in Minnesota. For Keller it’s something that’s always held her interest.

She earned her degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls before receiving her master’s in plant pathology. Keller was, however, destined to take a slightly different path in life. “For some reason my interest kept going back to hydroponics, and when I finally dragged my husband along to a conference on the topic, I knew I wanted to make a career out of it,” says Keller.

The rest, as they say, is history. Keller started working on her business plan and idea in 2003 and officially launched the company the following year. For Keller, hydroponics isn’t just the best way to produce crops but she believes it’s the method by which we’ll grow food in the future. Although Keller doesn’t come from a farming family, the name LaBore does have special meaning to her and is connected with the land.

“LaBore was the name of my great grandmother’s farm that was in White Bear Lake at the turn of the century. Before she died, I asked her if I could use it,” explains Keller.

While the produce can’t legally be classified as organic, it’s the next best thing. Customers can be assured she doesn’t apply pesticides or fungicides but rather relies on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to keep the bugs at bay. “I use ladybugs that I buy from a reputable source so I know they’re the real thing and let them loose in any part of the greenhouse where I detect a problem.”

Besides pesticide-free food, another advantage to hydroponics is that Keller can supply her customers with things like lettuce and mixed greens in the dead of winter when other growers can’t meet the demand. In fact, she says when other businesses slow down, hers increases and vice versa, so the beginning of the New Year always finds her at one of her busiest times.

LaBore Farms supplies most of the Twin Cities area food co-ops, plus some restaurants. In the early days, she marketed to just one co-op but then another one got to hear about the great produce she was producing, and she was asked to sell at yet another store.

“I’m the grower, sales and delivery person; and if you have a problem, I’m the one you talk to. I know many of the co-ops and their customers like the fact that I’m a farmer-to-family grower.”

Keller sometimes meets with customers, gives demonstrations and talks about hydroponics. LaBore Farms products are easily distinguishable because all are sold with their roots intact.

“I’m not allowed to say that they’re more nutritious, but I can tell you that from a freshness point of view, produce grown hydroponically is much better. As the roots remain attached, the food is still alive, which makes all the difference.”

So does this mean that special care needs to be taken once you get the produce home? Keller says there’s an easy guide to remember. If you’re going to consume the food within a couple of days, chop off the roots as soon as you get home and keep it in the crisper section of your fridge. However, if you’re planning on storing it longer, she suggests keeping the root intact and placing it back in water.

Besides growing lettuces and mixed greens, Keller added upland cress to her product line. It’s not the typical watercress you often see at the supermarket but a member of the mustard family that has a wonderful peppery bite. Keller said she was introduced to it at a conference and, once she saw it, knew she had to introduce it to her lineup.

A typical day for Keller consists of one or two things, either harvesting or delivering. She does have a part-time helper who works ten hours a week but hers is basically a one-person business.

Each morning, she’ll walk through the greenhouses to check the plants’ health. One day she’ll harvest, while the following day she loads everything into the van and heads to the Twin Cities to make her rounds.

She lives on the property close by her greenhouses and plans to become more energy efficient by adding a wind turbine and utilizing geothermal energy in the near future. Keller is also eyeing expansion in the next year and will add new produce when she does.

So if she could convince someone to try a hydroponically grown vegetable for the first time, what would she tell them? “I know you’ll be amazed at how much crisper and fresher it tastes and what might surprise you is they’re more tender and sweeter, too.”

Susan Palmquist is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Health, Arthritis Today, Relish and American Profile. She’s also the creator of the website, The Budget Smart Girl’s Guide to the Universe, which was named one of the top six money sites to watch in 2009 by U.S News and World Report.

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