Julie Hoene raises hydroponic
lettuce for local markets
By Marcia Walker
“Are your shoes clean?” Julie Hoene wants to know as she greets a visitor to Julie’s Farm Fresh, the family farm near Elizabethtown.
It’s a drab, gray day with periods of drizzle interspersed with more insistent rain. But inside Hoene’s greenhouse, it is comfortably warm and humid, enough to fog up a camera lens.
Welcome to her world. Hoene describes herself as a stay-at-home mom, but she spends much of her time in the greenhouse, where she grows lettuce and sometimes herbs. She uses hydroponics, a system that involves growing plants without dirt, delivering nutrients via a computer-controlled watering system.
And Hoene is serious when she asks about the cleanliness of a visitor’s shoes. Julie’s Farm Fresh is registered with the state Board of Health and Bartholomew County Board of Health; she is also a member of the Indiana Growers Association.
She adheres strictly to a food safety plan. Dirty shoes do more than track in mud and make a mess; they also could carry germs that trigger disease, a threat to the plants and consumers. So strict are the rules that Hoene follows that if a lettuce leaf falls on the washed and sanitized floor during harvesting, it will be deemed unmarketable and tossed out.
“It outlines what we do,” Hoene said, explaining the safety plan. “If someone is sick, they are not allowed to be in here. … We have livestock (and wear) special clothes and shoes when we come in here.”
Hoene has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and taught in Seymour schools for several years. But after her second daughter was born, she decided to abandon the classroom for the greenhouse.
She comes by her green thumb naturally. Growing up, her family had a big garden; canning and freezing were part of everyday life.
Her husband, Ben, works full time at Premier Cos. but has always farmed on the side. Both Julie and Ben are Bartholomew County natives.
Julie Hoene said they have long had an interest in hydroponics, helped along by a visit years ago to a greenhouse where tomatoes were grown hydroponically. What really tripped the trigger was when they attended a workshop several years ago.
“We started planting in December 2015,” Hoene said. “Our first harvest was about a year ago.”
The greenhouse, essentially two layers of plastic separated by a layer of air and stretched over a hoop-like frame, is self-sustained and environmentally friendly. About every aspect of its operation is computer-controlled.
A vent system opens automatically to let in CO2. A fan blowing air over water tumbling down an artificial wall (called a wet wall) serves as an air conditioner. Heavy netting and a unit called an insect exclusion, essentially a fan blowing down a “curtain” of air, are intended to keep bugs out.
“Insects don’t come through that blanket of air coming down,” she explained.
Hoene grows a type of lettuce called Lollo, which has a frilly green leaf and is often used on sandwiches. She also grows a spring mix and a small amount of bibb. Lettuce plants begin life as seeds that are germinated on a heat mat.
“We are always experimenting with different varieties and types to see what grows best,” she said, adding that they have already discovered that consumers like some color in the mix.
Horne said it takes about six to seven weeks in the summer to produce a head of lettuce; in winter it takes 12 weeks, because there is less sunlight. There are approximately eight rotations a year.
“We use all natural light, but sometimes in winter we use supplemental light, about four hours a day,” she explained.
Although a computer controls most of what is going on, it is a seven-day-a-week job and can be time-consuming. Hoene checks the greenhouse three times a day to be sure the system is working as it should. The water tank is cleaned every seven to 10 days, and water is added as needed. The system uses about 90 percent less water than traditional methods where plants are grown outside.
After harvest, trays are cleaned and sanitized.
It takes even more time to harvest the greens. The lettuce is picked early in the morning, before the heat of day sets in. It is packaged according to its destination, in bulk for restaurants and food service operations, individually if destined for a farmers market. Once harvested, lettuce is immediately stored in a walk-in cooler.
“It’s delivered within 24 hours of harvest,” she said.
Hoene has regular customers, and if she has enough produce after filling those orders, she sells at farmers markets in Columbus and Seymour. Her product can also be found at Hackman’s Farm Market.
Columbus resident Lynette Farless discovered Julie’s Farm Fresh at one of the farmers markets in Columbus and has become a big fan, impressed by both the cleanliness and freshness.
“I was drawn to the product because of the display and variety of greens,” she said. “She had lettuce in the middle of winter. There was actually flavor to the greens, and they stayed crisp and nice for an entire week.”
Farless also was impressed with Hoene, her friendliness and willingness to share her knowledge.
“It was interesting listening to her; she’s excited and proud about what they are doing,” Farless said. “You could tell it was a real passion.”
Although hydroponic greens are the major focus of Julie’s Farm Fresh, the Hoenes also raise beef and lamb.
“It’s all pasture raised; we do feed them grain,” Hoene said.
They have two daughters, Emily, 14, and Betsy, 11. Hoene said the girls help occasionally, but it’s too early to tell if they’ll want to become more involved with the operation. It’s also too early to tell if the Hoenes will expand the operation.
“We are waiting to see where the market takes us,” Hoene said. “We may expand depending on the market.”
The Hoenes recognize a growing interest in local food. Last year, their fledgling operation supplied lettuce for 70 lunches served to those attending the Seymour Local Food Summit. The focus of the summit was to bring together consumers, farmers, chefs and others involved in the food industry to promote locally grown foods and develop sustainable, year-round farmers markets.
“I think there is a real push for locally grown food,” she said. “It’s very sustainable.”
And one of those doing some of the pushing is Farless, a retired teacher and a faithful supporter of farmers markets.
“It’s exciting to have farm-to-table produce the entire winter,” she said.
Julie’s Farm Fresh
7899 E. Road 650S, Elizabethtown, 812-603-2744