By Caitlin Nearhood T-G Staff Writer Published: October 31, 2015 4:00AM
Fields of crops enmeshed in dirt are plentiful around Ashland County, but you won't find dirt at one local farm.
Since 1999, Doug and Katy Kern have operated Bradwood Farm, a farm that grows crops hydroponically, or through the use of recycled water in channels to grow plants in a conservative way. Nutrients transmitted to the plants are mined, not composted, and no chemicals, pesticides or herbicides are used at any point in the process.
"It's different, it's clean," Katy said. "Hydroponics are my first love; you don't have to worry about the dirt."
The farm sits at 1306 Township Road 608 in Nova, where there is plenty of room for the farm's greenhouse, pasture and home.
The Kerns first saw hydroponic farming in action when they visited Disney World's Epcot park 30 years ago. They were amazed by its ingenious setup. They didn't have money to start their own hydroponic farm at the time, but knew they wanted to do it eventually. Katy worked for Doug's construction business for 23 years until a few years ago, when Doug sold his construction business to focus on making their dream a reality.
Work started on the 5800-square-foot greenhouse in spring 2014, and it took a year and a half to build. Their first crop was planted Jan. 31,2015. Today, the greenhouse grows vegetables and herbs, including rosemary, basil, romaine lettuce, kale, tomatoes, jalapenos, red peppers and tatsoi, to name a few.
Plants like lettuce and other leafy green vegetables begin their lives in a small nursery in pods made of rockwool, a man-made mineral fiber. Unlike soil, rockwool leaves no residue to make for cleaner farming while absorbing water. As many as 200 plants are grown in one nursery cube as nutrients are pumped through small tubes.
A central tank in the greenhouse re-circulates the water to all the plants. After two weeks of growth, when roots grow out in the nursery, plants are moved into long channels that use a nutrient film technique that allows water to go through emitters to 12-pod holes. To help the water circulate, the tables the channels sit on are slanted toward the middle of the greenhouse. Anywhere in the greenhouse, the plants are watered every 30 seconds with the help of timers. Because no chemicals are used in the growing process, bug traps are kept near the plants to monitor and guard against pesky perpetrators, which proves effective for the Kerns.
Two layers of plastic along the greenhouses' walls also are used to keep bugs out with inflation fans to keep them airtight.
Plants stay in channels three to six weeks before they're harvested. Katy said lettuce takes five weeks to grow in summer and eight weeks in the winter. Having several channels in the greenhouse helps the farm grow 1,500 heads of lettuce a week.
At its hottest, the greenhouse can be 82 degrees and at its coldest 63 degrees. At one end of the greenhouse sits a water wall to help regulate temperature. Water goes through coated cardboard with an exhaust fan to blow the water into the greenhouse, creating a cool mist. For hanging plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, a Bato bucket is used to hold nutrients, and water enters the buckets through pipes.
"Hanging vegetables is actually better for them," Katy said. Each tomato plant will produce 40 pounds of tomatoes per year.
Because hydroponic farming is becoming more popular in Ohio, competition is tighter, so sharing exact prices for the crops could cripple the farm's sales. Generally, Katy said their lettuce and other vegetables usually sell anywhere from $2.49 to $3.39.
The Kerns also participate summer farmer's markets in Akron. "I'm confident when I hand a person a head of lettuce, it'll be good quality lettuce," Katy said.
The farm also provides educational opportunities for area children. For one week in summer, the Kerns host a kids camp for students from St. Edward School. Activities include a scavenger hunt, tractor rides, greenhouse tour, any nature activities, arts and crafts that educate the kids about nature and agriculture. They also host a growers school sponsored by Crop King in Lodi, a two-day school that trains people interested in creating greenhouses and hydroponic farming. Participants from Las Vegas, Kentucky, Tennessee and elsewhere have flocked to the farm.
Because the technique is so revolutionary, the Kerns have received national and international attention in recent months. In early October, Mark Rose, the director of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service from Washington, D.C., visited the farm to observe its technique. About two weeks ago, Italian Gaetano Verdoliva, founder of agribusiness organization Aeroponica International, Ltd visited while in the area for a conference at Wooster's Ohio State campus.
In the long-term future, the Kerns would love to produce more maple and walnut syrup and grow more carrots and beets in their new 30x96 high tunnel. Learning better techniques will always be useful, and Katy looks up videos and reads about hydroponic farming all the time.
As long as the Kerns work together as they have for the past 30 years, they know they can be successful. "We're a good team," Katy said.

Local business Bradwood Farm grows plants with water, not soil