By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
When you walk down row after row at St Bethany Fresh, you’ll notice every single tomato plant looks the same as the next. Each one is lush and green and covered in small yellow blooms. All have little tomatoes on them, some as big as golf balls.
Bumble bees buzz among the 3,000 plants, which are waist high, and the smell of vine-ripening tomatoes hangs thick in the air.
But the calendar says it’s still February. How can this be?
“We’re set up for year-round production at St Bethany Fresh,” said Leah Beth Murphy, the spokeswoman for the hydroponic facility she operates along with her father, Steve Hale, and her brother, Stephen. “We’re excited to be the largest commercial, computer-controlled facility in Northeast Mississippi.”
In hydroponics, plants are grown in an inert medium, rather than soil – in this case perlite – and water. The whole system is controlled by a computer on a wall that “talks” to a sensor that hangs in the middle of the 12,000-square-foot greenhouse.
“The computer calls to the irrigation system and says it’s time to water,” Murphy explained. “The system waters each plant every 30 minutes for 1 minute and 10 seconds. The computer also keeps the acid level just right. We measure those levels three times a day.”
The drip irrigation system uses 1⁄20 of the amount of water a conventional irrigation system would use. And it uses reverse osmosis to remove impurities in the water before it goes to the root of the plants.
“We’re concerned about water conservation here,” Murphy said. “We’re interested in sustainability. I don’t think this is just a trend. I think people will always be interested in local, fresh, chemical- and pesticide-free food.”
Construction on the Pontotoc County facility, located behind Golding’s Nursery on King’s Highway, began in October 2011.
“But we planted before we were even finished with the structure,” Murphy said. “We had plastic up and heaters and we sowed seeds and put out warming mats. Two weeks later, we were ready to transplant and the building was ready. These plants have never seen a night under 65 degrees and we planted on Dec. 17. In a regular garden, you can’t control the weather, you can’t control pests, you can’t control the squirrels. Here, we control everything.”
‘Big science project’
Murphy lives in Starkville and works full time at a medical clinic there, and her brother works for a company that sells security equipment in Tupelo, so it’s up to their dad, Steve, to do most of the day-to-day work in the greenhouse.
“I work in a lab and I love what I do, but it’s so cathartic to work in this greenhouse,” Murphy said. “It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding. I love to spend time with Dad and my brother here. We spend quality time together. I don’t think this is something my dad ever thought I’d be interested in, but I am. Daddy always dreams big and this is kind of mind-blowing.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to hear Murphy’s voice over the classical music playing in the greenhouse on this particular day.
“The music is playing for us and for the plants,” she explained. “They love it. I call them my babies.”
Because this is the first growing season for St Bethany Fresh, the family isn’t quite sure what to expect. They’ve planted Geronimo tomatoes this first go-around.
“We’re not sure when they’ll be ready, but we think maybe in the next three weeks or so,” she said. “Every other day we hand-pollinate and we’re continually pruning and clipping. One day I’ll come in here and the tomatoes are the size of a pea and the next day, they’re the size of a marble.”
The greenhouse also has its own beehive on one wall and Murphy figures the bees do at least 80 percent of the pollinating.
“The hive is supposed to last about six weeks,” she said. “It takes about a week for them to feel at home. When they aren’t as active anymore, we’ll get another one and keep the old one somewhere in the greenhouse.”
The temperature in the greenhouse is warm, but not unbearable. But if it does get too hot, the computer kicks in again and does its thing.
“We have a wet wall that cools the plants when it gets too hot in here,” Murphy said. “The wall on the south end of the greenhouse becomes saturated with water and then air is pulled through it by two big fans on the north end and cooled.
“Basically, this is a big science project. We’d like to open this up to all the children in Northeast Mississippi and let them learn things like humidity and dew point and temperature changes and the periodic table. We can even make it rain in here for them.”
When the Hale family members finally harvest the tomatoes, they’re not going to be selfish with them.
“We’d like to sell to people first,” Murphy said. “We’ll sell them in front of Mr. Golding’s Nursery and in Pontotoc at the Market Basket. We hope to sell them locally to restaurants, schools, hospitals. We have to start demanding locally grown food in our schools. We want to create a spark within the community, with other farmers, so they will also plant and grow organic vegetables so that generations to come will have more and more opportunities to buy healthy, buy fresh and buy local.”
What is in a name?
THE NAME ST BETHANY FRESH is a combination of the Hale children’s names – Stephen and Leah Bethany – with an emphasis on everything being fresh. Soon, you’ll be able to visit the farm’s website at www.stbethanyfresh.com