By Toni W. Riley
Persistence, determination, diligence or just plain old grit are all words that come to mind as Jerry Wyatt, the patriarch of KY Hydro Farm in Benton, talks about their hydroponic operation. His son, Clay, proudly displays an enlargement of the farm’s original 1830 land grant from Andrew Jackson to McGilbra Wyatt. Meanwhile, other son Jeff pollinates tomatoes with air from a leaf blower and grandson Casey picks a strawberry and plops it in his mouth. Casey marks the eighth generation of the family to work on the farm.
Jerry explained how he starting taking over the family farm from his father, Wayne, in the late-70s as Jerry continued his own career as an electrician. It was when Jerry’s other son, Matt, came home from Murray with a degree in horticulture in the 80s that the farming enterprise turned to flowers. The Wyatts put up greenhouses, and raised and sold flowers and tomatoes.
It wasn’t long until they expanded.
“Our customers told us they needed shrubs and bushes as well as landscaping, so we added that,” Jerry said.
In the winter of 2002 and 2003, a heavy snow storm collapsed the 22 greenhouses the family used for production. When the greenhouses were rebuilt in 2006, they began hydroponic production, and in 2009, KY Hydro Farm became the family farm name.
Disaster struck again Dec. 30, 2014 when the building that housed the two boilers that provided heat for the greenhouse as well as a water storage tank and a tractor was consumed by a fire, set by an arsonist. Later in 2015, an ice storm caved in another smaller set of greenhouses.
Jerry shakes his head with remorse as he stands beside the large boiler that, while not destroyed by the fire, had to be completely rewired to become operational again. Because of the fire, the greenhouses stood empty during 2015.
The boilers were rewired and, by 2016, were once again heating the greenhouse with a roaring fire fueled by sawdust from a local sawmill.
The greenhouses are currently brimming with vegetables. The tomato that Jeff is pollinating and the strawberry that Casey picked are both part of a 10-section hydroponic greenhouse that is the production area of the farm.
However, the main “crop” in the greenhouse is lettuce. The farm’s website names the Wyatts the “lettuce specialists.” They grow four varieties: Bibb, Romaine, a green and purple leaf.
One might think KY Hydro Farm has a strong customer base locally. But, while they do market to three Paducah restaurants, the main lettuce customer is Fayette County Schools. The school system purchases the four lettuce varieties along with kale for school lunches.
Each week, lettuce is harvested with roots intact. Six plants are placed in a bag and two bags are boxed together, and Jerry makes the four-hour drive to Lexington with 160 boxes. And they keep selling even after the end of school, providing lettuce for the summer lunch program.
Why harvest the lettuce with the root? “It’s just common sense,” Jerry laughed.
“It has a longer shelf life that way since the lettuce is not treated with any type of preservative.”
While looking out over the float beds, the different growing stages of the lettuce can easily be spotted in preparation for harvest — making one want to say, “Bring on the vinaigrette.”
The different varieties of tomatoes include a standard beefsteak, a couple of heirlooms as well as a cocktail tomato, which is slightly smaller than a golf ball.
English cucumbers and eggplants are also grown hydroponically and sold to restaurants and at farmers markets.
The farm is always looking for marketing opportunities, so Jerry and Casey go to the Nashville Farmers Market on Saturdays and drop off winter CSA boxes in Clarksville and Nashville. They don’t offer summer CSAs because of the abundance from other local producers.
When the weather turns warm, they move the operation outside and grow large-scale for various farmers markets. The Wyatts have a head start, by starting most of their vegetable and herb plants in the greenhouse before transplanting them outside.
This year, KY Hydro Farm will have a booth at the Bowling Green Farmers Market, which is a 12-month facility, and the Wyatts are looking at going to Paducah as well.
With the adversity that the Wyatts have had to overcome, it might have been easy to stop, but quitting is not Jerry Wyatt.
“Why quit?” he said emphatically.
“What else have I got to do? Stay home, watch TV and weigh 300 pounds,” he laughed. “We don’t quit.”
By Toni W. Riley