WILLIAMSON COUNTY, TX (KXAN) – Vermillion Farms is taking an unusual approach to farming. Instead of planting their crops in the ground, they’re growing them in the air.
“As many times as I have explained this system to as many people, every single person that walks in this door, that is the exact response,” said owner Will Vermillion, after we gasped upon entering the greenhouse on the mostly empty plot of land.
Inside the 4,300 square-foot greenhouse, rows and rows of towers stretch into the sky. Each tower, covered in lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. “Welcome to the starships pantry.”
Vermillion said that growing the way he does, he can produce ten times the amount of produce he could in the same size space.
“Hydroponic, aquaponic farms, they exist on a plane within the greenhouse. We’re volume, we’re 3d growing,” Vermillion said.
Finding the future of farming
Fifteen years ago, Vermillion was working in sales. He had no experience as a farmer, only ever owning a garden. He did some research and stumbled on aeroponics, a system similar to hydroponics, that doesn’t use soil.
“During that whole 15 years, I knew that this is what I was going to do. I knew that if I did that, and did that well and made a butt ton of money that I could find this one day.”
He roped his entire family in, much needed after the birth of his daughter. His brother, stepdad, mom and wife all work at the farm.
Last July, he sold his first crop at a Central Texas farmer’s market. Today, he sells in several each week, as well as to a grocery store in Taylor, TX and a restaurant in downtown Austin. “We actually grow cherry tomatoes and pickled cucumbers specifically for them,” Vermillion said.
How does aeroponics work?
“It’s similar to hydroponics only instead of the root system actually growing in the water. It grows in air.”
First, seeds are planted in a little green cube located in a tray on one end of the room. Once the seed matures a little and starts to sprout, this green cube is moved to a slot in one of the towers.
Each tower holds 25 gallons of water. “It gets piped up to the top and then rains back down on the roots. And so that system will turn on for three minutes, off for twelve. So that it actually gives the roots a chance to sort of dry out in between each watering.”
Vermillion removed a plant to show us white roots. He said he didn’t know roots were that color, since they usually appear brown. He said this is a result of the surrounding soil and not the actual color of the roots.
Not only does raining the plants with water reduce the chance of root rot, which can occur when roots just sit in water, Vermillion said it also allows the roots to absorb more oxygen. Minerals usually found in soil are ground up and mixed with the water.
“They grow better, faster, healthier, and the whole, the whole shebang,” Vermillion said.
The farm is able grow a new crop every week, since he plants each tower at a different time. Vermillion said this has allowed him to learn a lot in a short period of time.
Sustainable farming in the sky
Vermillion’s greenhouse is built to be sustainable. Rain water is collected in a giant tank outside. Special roofing material reduces UV light in the building. Bees fly around the greenhouse helping with pollination.
The farm even uses compostable bags made from plants when they sell their produce. Vermillion wants to add upgrades for carbon capture.
Aeroponics also uses less water. “95%, less water, no herbicides, no pesticides, no fungicides, I take no sides, but the plant side.”
Aeroponics has been cited a possible solution for farming in drought stricken areas. With Texas facing a future where droughts are more frequent and more extreme, Vermillion said his crops can withstand several weeks without rain. Each tower holds 25-gallons of water and a massive tank outside could also help.
Vermillion’s eventual goal is to build additional greenhouses on his property and then expand. “I want to buy another property over on the northwest side, Austin, do it again. Go south, do it again. Go southeast do it again.”
His hope is that each greenhouse can not only provide food, but also help with climate change.
“That’s my hope is that I can put these things all over and start to really suck the CO2 out of the out of the atmosphere, but gotta get this one working first.”