BAINBRIDGE ISLAND – It was once a sandpit on a family farm. Now it’s a flat, grassy field used as an occasional parking lot and a spot for dogs to run. Soon it’ll be a farm churning out loads of fresh produce for islanders to enjoy.
The family dog, Bandit, flashes around the field, chasing a rubber disc, chomping on remaining bits of melting snow as islanders Mark Taylor and Tracy Lang visualize their big move: launching Vireo Farm. They hope their 1-acre chunk of the publicly-owned Johnson Farm property off Fletcher Bay Road will yield its first harvest by fall.
On the back, shady part of the property, a shed will hold what they believe will be Kitsap County’s first commercial hydroponic growing facility. Out in the sunnier areas, a large garden in a few months will begin yielding more fresh produce. Lang’s daughter, Quinn, has plans to run a chicken and quail farm on the property too.
“We’ve always been gardeners, always,” Lang said. “It’s always been a dream, it’s never been a huge money-maker, so we had to sideline it. We’re just doing what we’ve always wanted to do.”
Vireo Farm will operate under a 21-year lease on a section of Johnson Farm, one of several publicly owned farm properties on the island managed by Friends of the Farms. The nonprofit manages about 60 acres of farmland for the city of Bainbridge Island under a long-term lease.
Taylor and Lang have been running a smaller prototype of the hydroponic facility in their home and have already begun selling their produce to restaurants on the island. In the next few months, they’ll grow the operation significantly. They plan to launch with produce like heirloom lettuce, basil, bok choy, arugula and other herbs.
“I swear, and all my friends swear, you really can taste the difference,” Taylor said. “More flavor.”
They can churn out produce year-round in the indoor facility and grow varieties you won’t find in the grocery store, the couple said.
“So far our clients, that’s what they love,” Lang said. “They’re building salads in their restaurants that have greens in them that nobody’s ever seen before.”
he 1,800-square-foot building will house the hydroponics side of the operation, crammed full of thousands of plants, each grown under LED lights, without dirt, roots in gutters running with nutrient-rich water. Taylor and Lang estimate that once their efficient operation is up and running at full capacity, they’ll be able to harvest around 500 pounds of produce per week out of the small building.
Out in the garden area, Lang says she plans to plant hops, camas, nodding onions and wildflowers. The field was once a large sand pit that was eventually filled back in with other soils, leaving a site that wasn’t great agriculturally, the couple said. They plan to begin restoring the earth there by putting down a layer of wood chips to start building up a layer of humus as they begin growing on the site, they said.
After they get their facility running, Taylor and Lang would like to see more hydroponic operations in other neighborhoods. The idea checks a few boxes: the model allows the food to be consumed shortly after harvest while it’s fresh, in the community where it was grown, distributed with a small carbon footprint. A network of similar facilities could help to feed a community in the weeks after a natural disaster.
“We’ve been working with Bainbridge Prepares to make Bainbridge a resilient community and thinking about us being an island and how we would be cut off after a disaster, that it’s important that we start growing more of our own food here, because it could be three weeks before anything gets to us following a disaster,” said Heather Burger, executive director of Friends of the Farms.
Said Taylor: “There’s nothing about the technology that says that we can’t just build one in your neighborhood. The benefit to that is that the food you’re getting is literally hours old. It was picked now.”