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Local farm boasts state-of-the-art technology

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Posted: Friday, February 15, 2013 3:43 pm | Updated: 8:25 am, Tue Feb 19, 2013.

A few miles from Forsyth, Five Oaks Farms is growing in more ways than one.

Throughout the years, the property — which includes traditional crops like tomatoes, onions, peppers, cucumbers and corn; cattle; chickens; an orchard with apple, peach, pear and plum trees; beehives for honey; a pond stocked with edible fish and more — has gone from being a hobby and passion for a Taney County business owner to being a business of its own.

The farm, situated on the 142-acre property of Tony Collier, National Enzyme Company president and CEO, started out with a simple vision — to provide clean, safe and fresh foods for Collier and his family.

Five Oaks is taking its goal of producing locally grown products to the next level. The farm now is growing lettuce in an approximately 6,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse.

The greenhouse, which produces various kinds of leaf and bibb lettuce, spinach, herbs and other special-order products for several area businesses already, could soon be expanding.

“If we can sell what we’re producing, we’ve got room to expand,” Collier said.

Carla Springer, Five Oaks Farms landscape and garden manager, said Five Oaks already sells its lettuce to several local businesses including the Branson Hilton, Sunfest Grocery, College of the Ozarks and the Highland Springs Country Club in Springfield.

Collier said expanding the hydroponic operation would allow Five Oaks to expand its customer base too.

The lettuce and other foods grown in the greenhouse are completely pesticide and herbicide free, something Springer said gives customers peace of mind.

How it works

The greenhouse is staffed by Springer and three other employees, Mandy Stuart, Taylor Breeden and Cortney Metzger, who work to plant seeds in a water- and nutrient-absorbing base made from lava rock, called rockwool, place those seeds in a nursery until they germinate, then transplant the sprouts into one of the dozens of lettuce channels that fill the climate-controlled space and harvest the fully-grown crops.

The mineral wool product is important because the hydroponic operation combines nutrients, specially formulated to work with water from an on-site well, and circulates the nutrients and water through channels in a closed-loop system.

“The nutrients are a perfect recipe for our well water,” Springer said. “It’s all computer-driven.”

The computer system monitors nutrient levels, although manual testing also is performed regularly, and regulates the temperature, kept around 58 to 68 degrees, in the greenhouse.

A wood-burning furnace provides heat, burning wood cut from Collier’s property. Cooling comes from a radiator-type cooling wall, which pumps water from the system over a metal wall and draws air through the greenhouse using large fans. The heating system also has a propane-fueled backup.

The plants are handled by gloved hands from start to finish to avoid any sort of contamination.

“We want our customers to know where they’re getting their food,” Springer said. “We grow a dirt garden as well, and that was the vision from the start, to grow our own food and provide the best we could for our families and the area.

“We keep records of our lot numbers, as well. We want our customers to feel comfortable knowing we are a state-of-the-art company, but still downhome, neighborhood farmers. We want people to not be afraid of (hydroponically grown produce). It’s all really good.”

The greenhouse plants about 3,200 seeds a week across its seven nurseries, and the crop is rotated so that portions can be harvested each week. More than 10,000 heads of lettuce are harvested each month.

It currently takes the farm about 42 to 45 days to grow a head of lettuce, Springer said, but that time frame will decrease as the days get longer in the spring and summer months. The largest obstacle to growing the lettuce plants, she said, is the length of day during the winter.

Using grow lights, she said, is not a cost-effective measure.

Springer noted that, when harvested, the plants are still alive and will continue to absorb water.

“Once the roots are taken off, the lettuce starts losing nutrition,” Collier said.

“Our goal is to take it from harvest to table,” Springer said.

That’s one of the reasons why Five Oaks offers delivery to its customers.

“I want to deliver to the chefs and have the chance to hear their feedback,” Springer said.

Growing the lettuce hydroponically, rather than in water, reduces kitchen waste, Collier said, noting that chefs have said they typically throw away 30-40 percent of a head of lettuce grown in dirt.

The process of washing lettuce grown in dirt also adds labor costs, he said.

While the hydroponically grown lettuce is more expensive per head, Five Oaks customers are noting a decrease in costs per plate, Collier said.

No shortcuts

“We have a motto both here and at National Enzyme,” Collier said. “You give the best of care and respect to your products, your customers and your people. We don’t take shortcuts.

There’s no time frame yet for the expansion of the hydroponic operation, but Springer and Collier said there are plans to utilize another greenhouse on the property for more commercial operations. That greenhouse currently holds plants from the farm brought in to avoid freezing in the winter, and a small-scale hydroponic tomato operation.

Collier said the tomato hydroponics will be expanded, in addition to the more than 300 tomato plants grown by traditional means in the irrigated fields.

The farm, including the hydroponic operations, grows a better product than available at grocery stores.

“Our customers are asking for it,” Collier said. “When you buy cucumbers from the grocery store, they need a lot of salt and dressing. What we grow here, we’ve had people tell us they smell like summer.”

“There are a lot of challenges here, but between Carla and Russell (Carla Springer’s husband and estate manager of Five Oaks Farms), the studying and research they’ve done, they’re able to improve on the existing methods and make things easier and more efficient,” Collier said.

Collier’s unique enterprise is on a unique property.

“This was owned by the Johnson family for over 100 years. That family didn’t let loggers come in and take the White and Black Oaks,” he said.

White Oak has historically been used for whiskey and wine barrels, while Black Oak has been used to make railroad ties.

Where the farm’s pond is now, workers found top soil, and a lot of it. Collier estimated it was six feet deep. He estimated it to be worth $250,000.

That topsoil was used to create viable plots for growing the farm’s orchard and other crops.

The farm has become about more than just growing. Collier said it has played host to a number of weddings, receptions, bridal showers and high school senior photo shoots.

“If you’d have told me when I was graduating DePaul that I’d be a Missouri farmer, I’d have never believed you,” Collier said. “I moved here for the clean air and because of the fact that there are more trees than people. Here, the staff has really bought into the place. They feel like it’s their farm, too.”

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