Culinary Arts students use herbs, vegetables grown indoors

March 6, 2012

From fdlreporter.com: “FdL business is part of emerging indoor gardening market” — No matter what the season, Heather Ulrichsen has fresh herbs, lettuce and peppers.

What started as a winter hobby turned into a business opportunity. She and her partner, Richard Manser, own Rational Solutions for Farming, 416 N. Main St., Suite 1. Their store and website, rationalfarming.com, sell everything needed to start and maintain indoor and hydroponics gardens.

Ulrichsen said gardening setups can be as large or small as the gardener wants. This time of year, indoor gardening helps start seeds for spring planting. Indoor gardens work well year-round, too, she said.

Hydroponic gardening isn’t new, but it’s an emerging market. Indoor gardening appeals to growers who want fresh produce, flowers or plants year-round. In light of product recalls and safety concerns, more Americans are growing their own food, she said.

It also holds potential for residents with limited outdoor growing space, particularly those in apartments or urban homeowners with small yards, she said.

Getting started

Ulrichsen said she started using hydroponics in 2009 when she and Manser had an organic farm near Hillsboro, Wis. She wanted something to do during the winter, so she started growing plants indoors and used them for freezing, canning and eating fresh. Some of those jars now sit on display at the store.

Since it went so well and because the small farm was struggling to compete with larger operations in the organic market, she looked at hydroponics as a business.

They eventually quit the farm and moved to Fond du Lac, where Ulrichsen had lived as a child when her mother served as a Methodist minister in North Fond du Lac. Ulrichsen said they chose Fond du Lac not only because she has ties to the area, but also because it’s everything she wants as a resident and entrepreneur — it has a more rural setting, but it’s only an hour’s drive from larger cities.

Rational Solutions for Farming opened Oct. 15, 2010, and has served a diverse customer base, from individuals to organizations, including Moraine Park Technical College’s culinary arts program, she said.

How it works

At first blush, Ulrichsen’s hydroponic gardening looks and sounds like something out of “Star Trek.” There are multi-colored lights, canvases and tents, tubes and fans, thermometers and numerous containers with plants in various stages of growth. In one corner, tiny strawberry plants peek through the soil. In the other, a sprawling cucumber seems to be plotting to takeover its neighborhood. Pepper plants reach for the light as small fruits hide beneath lush leaves.

On more than one occasion, she’s stopped to pluck a lettuce leaf for her sandwich or some herbs for cooking, she said.

“It really does wonders psychologically. It’s your own little oasis. You can shut out all the winter stuff going on outside,” she said.

The miniature jungles and technology may intimidate customers looking for a small setup, but Ulrichsen says indoor gardening doesn’t have to be large or complicated.

It requires lighting and some kind of shelter, whether it’s a tent or canvas. She said the lights mimic the sun’s rays, and the canvas is essential to direct the light to the plants.

“If you were to just stick a light in a room, you’re not going to get good results. You’re just lighting your room. It’s a glorified light bulb at that point,” she said.

In another kind of hydroponics system, plants sit in a circular container. The roots hold clay pebbles, which are cleaner than soil. Ulrichsen said she waters the pebbles, and the plants pull moisture and nutrients from the clay.

Indoor gardening doesn’t require special seeds or plants, she added.

“You’re kind of playing God a little bit,” she said. “You control the light, the temperature, how much water they get.”

Pests are a possibility, but they can be controlled with all-natural pesticides. Ulrichsen said she uses a chrysanthemum extract that’s safe for plants and people.

Grow your own

MPTC’s culinary arts program started indoor gardening last fall, said Culinary Arts Instructor Ron Speich. He said Rational Solutions for Farming donated two LED lights and provided information to help them get started.

MPTC now has not only an indoor garden but also an aquaponic system that combines a fish tank with growing plants. The fish’s droppings create a fertilized water for the plants. Ulrichsen said she hopes to sell aquaponics systems in the future.

Speich said students and staff wanted to use more homegrown ingredients instead of buying them. Since graduates will likely become chefs, they need to understand where their food comes from, how safe it is and how to find the freshest ingredients.

The plants are flourishing, he said. The basil is three feet high. When the pepper plants hit five feet, it was time for trimming.

“I think in the future you’re going to see more and more of it,” he said.

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