Filling local produce demand one seed at a time: Pukwana hydroponic business grows produce, manufactures local products
PUKWANA — Humidity, sunshine, the sharp smell of sweet greens and the view of rows upon rows of plants, some reaching over six feet tall, greet the Scholl family every morning. This is Mark and Teal Scholl’s office.
Owners of the hydroponic facility Happy Hydros, LLC., Mark and Teal Scholl, along with their son, spend hours every day tending to 3,000 vegetable plants consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce.
Running a hydroponic produce facility was not the original goal of Mark Scholl. He worked in the restaurant industry for many years before deciding it was time for a new adventure. Scholl told The Daily Republic on Tuesday that he likes to do the impossible.
“When I built this place, people said it wouldn’t work,” Scholl said. “I’m the type of person who likes to prove them wrong.”
Through his work in the food industry, Scholl was confident the demand for locally grown produce would rise, and he was ready for an out-of-the-box experience. In 2007, he and his wife bought a plot of land on the outskirts of Pukwana and built a greenhouse. In the spring of 2008 they produced their first crop of hydroponic tomatoes.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a water-based nutrient solution rather than in soil, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Instead of the root system of the plant being supported by dirt, hydroponic farmers use mediums such as perlite, rockwool, clay pellets, peat moss or vermiculite as support. This growing method makes nutrients, water and oxygen readily available to plant roots resulting in increased growth rates.
Hydroponic growers have to balance the pH, nutrient and water levels their plants are exposed to throughout the day. Errors can be detrimental to the grower’s crop.
After 11 years in the hydroponic business, Scholl knows exactly what his plants need.
“Once you learn your plants, the growth of them and how they are looking, you know what you have to do to keep them growing,” Scholl said.
The facility grows lettuce all year round, but tomato and cucumber plants are seeded in early January. Weekly harvesting starts at the end of March and continues through the summer and fall until November.
Unlike regular farming, Scholl and his family have to tend to each vegetable plant every day to receive maximum produce.
“I can’t just plant and walk away,” Scholl said. “There are six different practices we do each week on these plants, plus we’re picking three times a week.”
Each day of the week is assigned one of the six practices whether it’s vine clipping, suckering, lean and lowering the plants, cluster pruning and clipping or leaf removal. With a 1200-square-foot facility and only three employees — Scholl, his wife and their son — caring for the plants takes up a majority of the day.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday prove to be the longest days of the week between harvest and delivery.
Scholl and his family harvest 1,000 heads of lettuce and 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of tomatoes a week and 300 to 400 cucumbers per day. Thursday is typically set aside for harvesting the vegetables. Produce is then boxed up and delivered to hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores, health food stores and local families from Sioux Falls to Rapid City on Friday and Saturday.
The family delivers the produce themselves, making sure they see the vegetables from start to finish.
With a never ending to-do list and small staff, the family works long hours. Scholl said he starts many days at 3 a.m. and does not arrive home before 9 p.m.
“A lot of people, if they would have endured what we have endured over the past 11 years, they would have folded,” Scholl said. “I’ve exhausted a lot of energy over the years to build this business.”
In the beginning, Scholl and his wife were rejected for loans by six different banks, many of which told them the business was too out of the normal. Then in 2015, 127 mph winds knocked down two of the four greenhouse bays, destroying half the crop.
Still Scholl and his family persevered, trying many vegetables over the years and through trial and error honing into the produce of highest demand. Now every week they sell every piece of produce they harvest and still find people want more.
Most of the produce is sold to food service facilities, but Scholl saves some to sell at the Rapid City Farmers Market and to anybody who walks through the door of the greenhouse.
“It’s crazy the amount of people who are standing there waiting (at the farmers market) when I get there in the morning,” he said. “After people have a taste of them, we have no problem selling out.”
Although the produce grows in a greenhouse, Scholl says like many farmers and growers his crop is affected by the weather and conditions happening on the other side of the glass.
“I can aid Mother Nature, but she still takes her course,” he said. “Two weeks of cloud cover can really affect the growth rate and the amount of produce we accumulate.”
Scholl also battles pests and possible pesticide contamination. Since Happy Hydros is a pesticide-free facility, Scholl has to find other ways to combat potential pests and works closely with local farmers to avoid contamination of his plants.
The facility uses integrated pest management and products suggested by the Organic Materials Review Institute to keep produce healthy and pest-free.
“If you don’t understand the outside, you’re going to lose a lot of produce in the greenhouse,” Scholl said. “...Some years, pests can be detrimental.”
In addition to the hydroponic greenhouse, the business added a small processing facility in 2016 called Grandma D’s Kitchen, LLC. Located next to the greenhouse, the fully insured, licensed and certified processing facility offers co-packing services to six South Dakota made products.
The kitchen also produces products made from produce grown from the neighboring greenhouse. Scholl said the hope is to help more local entrepreneurs produce and sell their own recipes in the future.
“Anybody can have a recipe ready to go for $1,000,” Scholl said. “If you can get out and push the product yourself, it’ll sell.”
Spending hours in the humid greenhouse, on the road making delivers, and in the kitchen is worth it when Scholl sees the impact it has on his customers and the growers he helps mentor through his growers trainings.
“You can see young couples are starting to teach their kids about good local food,” he said. “People are out there looking for local produce. It’s one of those things I asked myself, ‘Is it going to be a fad and how long is it going to last?’ I’m hopeful it stays for quite a while.”