Originally created 08/16/98

New technique offers good yields



AIKEN -- The two-rut road that leads to Mike Wallick's farm is far from the Ohio corn fields he sprouted from.

But at 50-something he's come full circle. Only this time he has taken up residence in South Carolina on a 23-acre farm on Pickett Lane, minus the fence, without a John Deere tractor, working at Savannah River Site and living off 'mater-and-cucumber sandwiches.

While Mr. Wallick and his partner Jeff McDanel, who is from Pittsburgh, stand beneath 10-feet-high European cucumber vines, South Carolina farmers stand amid drought-dwarfed corn, ankle-high soybeans and knee-high cotton.

It's Day 16 since the harvest began, and the duo has already picked, packed and wrapped more than 3,200 -- an average of about 200 a day.

Their secret? A magic brew similar to MiracleGro, a hothouse, plastic pipe, volcanic rock and water.

It's called hydroponics, a technique first used thousands of years ago in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where plants grew in a steady stream of water. Later, during World War II, Army soldiers used hydroponics to grow vegetables for troops stationed on infertile Pacific Islands.

A trip to Disney World brought about the idea that started it all. Mr. McDanel saw a display at Epcot and eventually built a miniature backyard greenhouse of his own.

Later, Mr. Wallick joined in, and the result is a 30-foot-by-128-foot farm, where tomatoes and cucumbers are grown year-round in a temperature-controlled environment and where even in winter, you can wear shorts.

What's missing is dirt. Hydroponic gardening is done without it.

He'd been looking for a way to supplement his income and make use of his land, so a hydroponic hothouse seemed like a good investment to Mr. Wallick.

But when he talked his options over with a local Clemson Extension agent he didn't get the response he hoped for.

"Looks like your best bet would be to plant timber," the agent said.

So much for that advice, though it would have proven cheaper and less labor-intensive. Before the growers had planted their first tomato vine, they had invested $50,000.

Though many organic growers snub hydroponic technology, the quality and freshness of locally grown produce is quickly gaining market acceptance.

Just ask the McDanel-Wallick duo, who own the largest hydroponics farm in South Carolina.

When tomatoes are in season -- starting around Thanksgiving -- the southside location of the Aiken Kroger buys on average 400 pounds per week.

They're also sold at Aiken's No. 10 Downing Street and the Fresh Market in Augusta. The rest is shipped to a distributor in Atlanta and, though the farmers haven't seen their cucumbers in stores, they're out there -- somewhere.

Eventually the partners may try their luck with lettuce and corn, which are being trial-tested in Mr. McDanel's back yard.

But because the SRS engineers are still under the learning curve, they haven't turned enough profit to quit their jobs.

Last year a beady-eyed bug wiped out the 870-plant tomato crop, then spider mites destroyed the cucumbers. Because pesticides aren't used, Mr. Wallick and Mr. McDanel have learned to fight bugs with bugs, letting bumblebees from Ann Arbor, Mich., do the job.

"In this business you have to be a chemist, a botanist and a biologist -- and have a lot of luck," Mr. McDanel said.