It’s a successful urban farm that is just under two acres and, despite its moniker, does not even grow blackberries. Actually, the crops produced there aren’t even grown in the ground. Welcome to Blackberry Hill Farm, where hydroponically grown vegetables, herbs and microgreens are produced smack in the middle of one of Wisconsin’s largest cities.
“We don’t really grow anything outdoors; I call it a micro farm,” said Joe Selkey. He and his wife Megan own and operate the agribusiness that occupies 1,200 square feet of their spacious City of Waukesha home. Selkey left his job in corporate advertising and marketing three years ago to pursue full-time what had begun as a hobby 20 years ago. Megan continues with her own advertising business and helps out at farmers markets.
“Farming is an extremely risky business, so we went a different route. With hydroponics we can control some of the growing factors to eliminate or reduce risk to better predict their outcome,” he said. “We fall under the umbrella of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA).” A technology-based approach to food crop production, CEA shields a crop from outdoor elements to improve growing conditions from germination to harvest.
Blackberry Hill Farm grows microgreens, gourmet salad greens, herbs and specialty produce including Swiss chard, kale, collard greens and mustard greens. Besides seasonal farmers market sales, they sell product year-round through their website. Partnering with a local delivery service, Selkey brings his online orders to a central location once a week. They are then delivered the next day to customers’ homes within a 10-county area in southeastern Wisconsin. “When customers get fresh, local lettuce they cannot believe how good it tastes,” said Selkey.
Blackberry Hill Farm is a good example of how marketing makes a difference. The couple’s extensive advertising background shows through on everything from photography, signage and packaging to website design and social media. Their website stresses the importance of fresh, locally grown food. “The average head of lettuce travels over 1,000 miles to reach your plate. By the time you’re ready to eat, it’s lost much of its vital nutrition and flavor,” Selkey said. “There’s a better way, and we’re proud to be part of the local food movement.”
The Hydroponic Method
Some of today’s hydroponic methods include the wick system, water culture, ebb and flow, drip and aeroponic systems. Blackberry Hill Farm opted for the nutrient film technology (NFT) method. The NFT system constantly recirculates water and uses 95% less water than traditional farming methods, according to Selkey. “Everything is provided for the plants. There is a thin layer of water that flows down the pipes to channels where the plants sit in the water, taking up the nutrients they need,” he explained. “It’s a very efficient way to grow and is good for the plants. They grow optimally and don’t have to work for their supper.”
The hydroponic system monitors nutrient and pH levels, allowing for their adjustments as needed. In addition to the constantly circulating filtered water, dissolved mineral nutrients along with basic nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are part of the plant nutrition program. “We feed the secondary and micronutrients to the plants in a continuous recirculating flow where they take up just what they need,” said Selkey.
He pointed out that he does a little “water chemistry” to monitor the plants’ nutrition levels. “If the pH is outside a certain range, the plants cannot absorb nutrients. The great thing about hydroponics is that it is a very rapid way to see what is good and bad. If you make a mistake, you can correct it quickly.”
As newer lighting technology evolves, more efficient and affordable lighting becomes available for hydroponic growing. “Light emitting diode (LED) lights are the revolutionary part that allows indoor commercial growing,” Selkey said. “The different colors, the red, blue and green light, all have different effects on the plants. Arguably, they can replace the sun and the science portion of it all is appealing to me.”
The USDA defines urban agriculture as “the cultivation, processing and distribution of agricultural products in urban and suburban areas.” Besides traditional community gardens, the recognized agriculture category includes rooftop farms, hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic facilities. It’s operations like Blackberry Hill Farm that are extending local food production and providing better access to healthy, fresh food to city neighborhoods.
And as for the farm’s name? It was named after their dog Blackberry, whose favorite activity was sitting on a hill in their backyard.
by Gail March Yerke