How Is Baywater a Farm Without Dirt?

While it may appear pretty straightforward, “farm-to-table” isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially from the farmer’s perspective. The kinds of restaurants that pride themselves on the local supply chain, also have an outrageously high standard for the food they order. In the nearly seven years since they started growing hydroponic greens at Baywater Farms in Salisbury, Matt and Alex Holloway and their team have gotten an in-depth education about the restaurant and grocery store business and have emerged as one of the most reliable growers in the area.

Baywater Farms hydroponic greens are shipped to Whole Foods and Giant stores all over the region. They are a staple among higher-end restaurants that do business with Sysco Foods, another of their purveyors. Smaller independent restaurants, though, places like Amuse and The Blue Hen in Rehoboth, help keep Baywater Farms on the cutting edge of culinary demand.

Baywater Farms and Local Food

The buy local movement got its first big push as the economy struggled through the 2008-2009  financial crisis. The crunch was particularly evident in the housing-support market, where companies that relied on new construction had to reinvent the way they did business. Quantico Creek sod farm, which is owned by the Holloways, was such a company. The market for sod came apart completely, so the Holloways, who are sixth generation Eastern Shore farmers, put some of the land to what they think was better use.

They diversified some of their land, using a portion for hydroponics (growing plants without dirt) and another for specialty outdoor vegetables. It had been raining for nearly a week and Alex Holloway said he would be sick if his entire crop were at the same mercy of the weather as had his grandfather been.

How Is Baywater a Farm Without Dirt?
The plant trays at Baywater Farms stretch the entire length of the greenhouse on tables.

“We decided we wanted to try and take nature out of the equation,” Holloway said, gesturing toward the various tables and pipes from which grew greens of all kinds. “It’s been an adventure, that’s for sure.”

Breaking into the hydroponics field was more difficult than just putting together the apparatus. On top of getting the nitrogen mixture that supports the plants correct and consistent, hydroponics farms have to operate at a factory-level of efficiency. The hydroponic greenhouse takes up just half an acre but produces the same volume as 24 acres of land. Plants have to be monitored and rotated so that there always is lettuce ready to ship, ready to transplant and ready to be planted. Those problems are, Holloway said, trade-offs for the stability of growing indoors.

Getting people to commit to buying the lettuce, though, was a little harder in the beginning. Efficiency demands scale, and although many of the restaurants and farmers markets were happy to have access to locally, sustainably grown food, Baywater Farms would need a larger customer base to make it financially practical. Holloway said that the purveyors and distributors they spoke with wouldn’t commit to buying something in the future. Instead the farm would have to produce the food and then take it to market and hope for the best.

In retrospect, it wasn’t much of a problem. Grocers were as happy to have Baywater Farm’s greens as were chefs, but the decision to diversify with hydroponics did weigh a bit on Holloway while he was learning how to plan to keep pace with demand. It was among the reasons he brought on greenhouse manager, Bryce Butterworth.

Butterworth is responsible for organizing the growing pace and continually reviewing the seeding and planting process.

Coordinating the Dirt-Free Operation

The hydroponics tables and pipes that support the various greens Baywater grows have holes in the top to accommodate the plants. According to Butterworth, seedlings are started in smaller trays and moved into vacant holes after mature plants have been harvested. This is where the timing come in. If it is poorly timed and a plant is harvested but not replaced, or a plant is mature enough to be moved into a slot but there isn’t one open, the backup can be expensive or even crop-threatening. Finding the groove and staying in it as new plants are added is critical to the farm’s success.

As far as which crops to add, Holloway said, that comes down mainly to the people who have been their core customers all along, local chefs.

“These guys travel,” he said. “It’s part of their job to stay ahead of the trends, so when they know a certain ingredient is going to be popular, they let us know so we can grow it.”

Cafe on 26 Stays Surprisingly Fresh All Year

Treating yourself to an evening at the Cafe on 26, especially in the off season, is a can’t-miss way to get some of the most purposefully made food in the region. That it’s a quality meal goes without saying, but the care and intentionality with which the staff conceives, prepares and serves each evening’s menu really sets the Cafe on 26 apart.

Much of that interaction falls to Baywater Farms marketing manager Tim Fields. Working with chefs like Travis Wright from the Shark in West Ocean City and Rehoboth chefs Bill Clifton from Henlopen City Oyster House and Hari Cameron from Amuse, Fields gets a sense of what indoor and outdoor vegetables will be “in” from season to season so he can work with Holloway and Butterworth to see about getting them into the production line.

“The scarlet kale is such a beautiful food,” Cameron said. “They are tender because they’re hydroponic so they don’t need a long cooking time.”

Cameron said he meets with Fields a couple of times each season so he knows what’s going to be available and so that fields knows what he’s interested in.

So far working with chefs to decide what to grow and scaling it up to attract the attention of the Whole Foods’ of the world has helped Baywater Farms find a particular niche. Holloway said the company is ready to expand. It’s also helped them to further diversify their outdoor plants to include things like shashito peppers (to which they were tipped off by their chef friends) and other high-demand plants that do well locally.

“There are a lot of savvy people who shop at farmers markets and who pay attention to that they’re served at restaurants,” Holloway said. “Everybody wants to know where their food comes from.”