Thirsty Roots Hydroponic Farm

thirsty roots hydroponic farm

Local produce: Thirsty Roots Farm’s greens grow in a shipping container

Thirsty Roots Hydroponic Farm | Jack Underwood |

Most of the herbs and greens found in restaurants and grocery stores in the Panhandle are grown over a thousand miles away. The Kerr family and Thirsty Roots Farm are trying to change this.

They are providing locally grown herbs and other greens through farming techniques known as hydroponics.

Hydroponics uses nutrient solutions to grow crops and plants without soil. Plants are grown on racks where a system of pumps provides them with water and the nutrient solution they use as a substitute for soil.

Thirsty Roots uses a hydroponics system developed by Farmbox Foods to create a climate-controlled environment where the temperature, humidity, lighting, nutrients and water are regulated. Known as the Vertical Hydroponic Farm, the entire system is held in a shipping container that can house roughly three acres worth of plants.

While Jarod and Maggie Kerr handle the business side of the farm, they are actually based out of Minneapolis. The day-to-day operations of the farm are handled by Jarod’s parents, Jim and Nancy. Jim and Nancy live on the farm located east of Mitchell off Highway 71.

Jarod and Maggie started experimenting with hydroponics at their condo in Minneapolis during COVID-19 using a Lettuce Grow Farmstand for fresh greens. They then realized that the system could satisfy a need for the community back home here in Scottsbluff.

“Scottsbluff was the perfect opportunity. … We had Jarod’s parents in town as market experts and long-term residents interested in giving back to their community. It was kind of the perfect blend,” Maggie said.

They got started on their current operation with the delivery of their Farmbox on March 30. They planted their first crop on April 1 and had their first harvest June 1.

The farm supports a variety of plants. The Kerrs are currently growing a mix of herbs like mint, basil, cilantro and mustard plant and greens including several types of lettuce and arugula.

Jarod emphasized the significance of having freshly grown herbs available here in Scottsbluff. “It’s grown right here. So you can pick it and deliver it to the restaurants in town, which makes it super fresh versus traveling roughly 2,000 miles on some of this stuff.”

There are also advantages to the hydroponics and vertical growth methods compared to more traditional techniques.

“The biggest benefit is that there’s no weeds and then the difference is the water is all controlled,” said Nancy, who does much of the actual care and planting of the crops.

Between the trays used for early growth and the racks for adult plants, the farm has the capacity to carry up to 8,000 individual plants, although Jarod stressed that they have not reached that size yet. Currently the farm is home to 25 to 30 different species of plants, numbering around 1,800 total on the racks.

The farm is divided into several sections including trays for younger plants that are not yet ready to grow on the racks. These trays are designed to allow the nutrient solution to pump in through the bottom and provide the plants with everything they need to grow.

The rest of the farm grows out of the racks where the adult plants are stored. Each rack is on a different watering schedule to accommodate the needs of different plants. LED lights provide the light required for plants to grow and are run overnight when there is less stress on the power grid.

The farm also uses a complex system to maintain ideal growing conditions using air circulation and a humidifier to regulate the amount of moisture in the air.

Jim Kerr, who runs maintenance as well as handling the facility here in Scottsbluff, said the circulation system works “to create the right atmosphere” for the plants to grow.

The insulation on the farm is strong enough that the air conditioning runs year round to keep the temperature right where it needs to be for the plants to grow. The container also provides protection for the plants from storms or hail.

Maggie even joked that because of its metal exterior, the farm is “Nebraska proof.”

Since it is all protected within the shipping container, the farm can produce fresh plants without the use of pesticides.

Thirsty Roots is currently partnered with Powerhouse Social, providing herbs and greens for use in Powerhouse’s salads and even some drinks.

The Kerrs said the partnership with the restaurant really came to be through family connections.

“It’s kind of small-town magic,” Maggie said. “It was like we’re looking to start this business, they’re looking to bring a new restaurant that’s farm to table and local, fresh, and it was a little bit of we needed them and they needed us.”

Powerhouse Social has been receiving weekly deliveries from Thirsty Roots for five weeks and has incorporated the farm’s ingredients into many menu items.

Powerhouse has been using Thirsty Roots ingredients in a number of their salads, including arugula, butterhead lettuce and herbs such as cilantro, mint and basil, according to Powerhouse Social chef Gus Lucio.

Most notably, the restaurant has began using edible nasturtium flowers as a garnish in a signature drink named after the farm: The Root 1.

“We kind of sat down with them at the beginning and they kind of took notes on the amounts of the greens that we’re using right now on our salads and everything, and so that was their goal was to meet our need,” said Kerri Schaff, Powerhouse owner.

The relationship between the farm and the restaurant has provided both businesses with new opportunities. It was the Kerrs who originally suggested using the nasturtiums as garnishes, while Powerhouse has also specifically requested that the farm start growing other herbs, such as oregano.

Lucio also pointed out the significance of the ingredients Thirsty Roots provides for the restaurant: “Honestly, it’s really really good because you don’t get that here … where you can get fresh produce.”

The variety of plants that can be grown in the Farmbox leaves Thirsty Roots with plenty of room for expansion when the Kerrs are ready. For now they are focusing on perfecting their farming process.

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