COLLEGE STATION When graduate student Chris Freeman hit upon an idea for advanced studies in horticulture, he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. But he won’t have to. Freeman is researching how to grow vegetables organically in water.
“I won’t need soil,” Freeman said of his hopeful venture. He envisions providing world-class chefs at restaurants in Houston with the freshest of vegetables taken straight from their watery nutritious growing medium, with root still intact, to a restaurant kitchen in under two hours time.
“This is an untapped area of horticulture,” said Dr. Harvey Lang, assistant professor of horticulture at Texas A&M University and Freeman’s lead professor. “Hydroponics is becoming more popular and the organic part of it is taking off, too.”
Organic product sales totaled $3.5 billion in 1996, according to Organic Trade Association. Organic products are now available in every food category, from fresh produce to processed products, and more than 5 percent of all new food and beverage introductions in 1996 were products made with organic ingredients, the association reports.
Freeman said the idea for growing organic vegetables hydroponically or without soil began as a hobby in 1990 when he was working for a large corporation in Houston. He was from a farming family, but he got interested in raising plants hydroponically. Freeman began from scratch, making the nutritious supplements for the water medium himself.
“But then I realized that I am not interested in being a fertilizer maker,” he said. So, he brought his knowledge of growing plants hydroponically to graduate school to couple that with more intense research on what is necessary to develop the enterprise commercially and with advanced studies in business and marketing.
“Working this out in graduate school is a good way to test it when I don’t have to worry about the bottom line and to get a feel for running a business,” he said.
From the production standpoint, Freeman is researching ways to get higher yields per square foot of hydroponic space, how many square feet will be necessary to make a profitable business and how to minimize costs per square foot. He is focusing on fancy varieties of lettuce, fresh herbs and edible flowers.
Although he feels there is wide “consumer appeal for organic, pest-free, healthy and flavorful vegetables,” Freeman admits that he still needs to learn more about how to market unique ideas to the end users, such as chefs in a given locale.
Lang said the information gained from these studies will provide Freeman as well as others valuable information about commercial production of hydroponic organic vegetables.