For much of his life, Hal Quick worked in construction. But before he began in the industry, during the Great Depression, he and his wife Christean grew tomatoes and sold them to canning factories.
Coming up in the workforce, Hal and Christean’s son, David Quick, developed an understanding of construction from his father, and he made it his own career. Construction was all he knew until the Great Recession hit in 2008.
Quick then decided to make a career change, determining that he needed to choose something more recession-proof. He was inspired in part by his parents. “I tell people you don’t necessarily have to have that concrete patio that you have out back, but you’re going to eat every day,” he says. Using this logic, Quick, his wife Terry and their family decided to start growing vegetables at their Galena, Mo., home.
Quick’s operation, Quickley Produce Farm, sets itself apart from his parents’ business in several ways. For one, he grows cucumbers in addition to tomatoes. Also, because agricultural methods have changed significantly since the 1930s, Quick has seen results from investing in computer-controlled hydroponic greenhouse systems from CropKing. In 2011, he and his family constructed their first greenhouse, which they bought from CropKing, and have set up three more CropKing greenhouses since. Between the four 30-by-100-foot greenhouses, they currently have 14,000 square feet of undercover growing space where they grow fresh, local, pesticide-free produce, and the demand for it continues to rise.
Redefining the family business
Because of the learning curve associated with developing a new produce operation, Quick echoes the sentiments of CropKing that growers shouldn’t quit their day jobs — at least not right away. Before shifting all of their efforts into controlled environment agriculture, the Quicks, their daughter Alisha Welch and son-in-law Ruskin Welch briefly continued their enterprise in concrete construction. Quick’s advice for people who are interested in starting a produce operation is as follows: “Get with CropKing and discuss what you actually want to do, how much you want to grow, and watch your income. Make sure that you have something to sustain you for at least a year.”
After about a year working in the greenhouse, the family transitioned full time into produce growing. Everybody has a part to play in the operation, including Quick’s mother-in-law Pauline Hedrick and his three grandchildren, Dusty, 16; Dawson, 15; and Bristol, 6.
A company that cares
About a year and a half before they began growing produce, Quick and his family drove to Pennsylvania for a CropKing workshop. They came away impressed. In the six years the family has been growing, CropKing has consistently provided them with support and answered their questions.
“The thing about buying from CropKing is every nut, bolt, screw, washer, everything is there — instructions — and [you are] able to call and talk to somebody that can walk you through it,” Quick says. “They have been excellent.”
Quick’s greenhouses handle nutrition, heating, cooling and insect and humidity control via computer. They also include features such as air-inflated double-layer plastic, and can withstand an 80 mile-per-hour straight wind and a 20 pound-per-square-foot snow load. Their controlled environments allow for a level of stability that growers with hoop houses, for instance, don’t have.
Quick decided to grow tomatoes in part because his parents did, but he also sticks to tomatoes and cucumbers for his operation because he can grow them both in Bato bucket systems. Other hydroponically grown vegetables, such as lettuce and leafy greens, by comparison, often require nutrient film technique systems.
Within the greenhouses, Quick and his family rotate production cycles. “At the moment, we’ve got one house that we do cucumbers in, and we rotate half of it,” he says. “In fact, we’re picking cucumbers now, so I’m fixing to plant the other half of it so they’ll catch up by the time they are done. Then I’ve got another big house that’s full of heirloom plants, and then another house that’s full of beefsteak hybrid tomato plants. Then we’ve got one house that we just are stripping out of some older heirloom plants that had finished up, and fixing to replant it back.”
Almost anything can be grown hydroponically, but the market will ultimately determine what is worth growing, Quick says. If growers are selling to a farmers market, they can grow a variety of vegetables, but if they are selling wholesale, they should have something they specialize in. “That’s something that we’ve learned over the years here, and that’s the reason we’re down to basically about three varieties of tomatoes and one variety of cucumber,” he says.
Lessons in marketing
Finding customers to market the product to was difficult at first. In certain instances, growers need to be Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)-certified, and in others, potential customers cite issues with pricing. “I’m not going to sit here and say that it doesn’t have its challenges,” Quick says. “This is the sixth year for us, and we learn something new virtually daily.”
CropKing president Paul Brentlinger told Quick that 95 percent of growers who fail at hydroponic growing do so because of a marketing issue, he says. In the farm’s first year, Quick thought he had figured out his marketing, but then he had a rude awakening. “We woke up one morning and had about 5,000 pounds of raw tomatoes, and we didn’t really have any place to go with them,” he says.
Quickley Produce first began selling at farmers markets. At first, Quick said he would “almost cringe” when people asked if they grew hydroponically because they would lose interest. However, trends have changed over the years. Now, people not only accept hydroponically grown produce, but they seek it out.
“Our last year at market, we had people come looking for us, wanting to know, ‘Are you the hydroponic people?’” Quick says. “‘Yeah!’ ‘Good! We were looking for this!’ The whole local-grown, fresh-grown, no-pesticide, no-sprays has really made quite an impact on hydroponic growing.”
In some instances, the demand for Quickley Produce has begun to exceed the supply. The Springfield Public School District in Springfield, Mo., is requesting 3,000 cucumbers a week. “They’ll buy them just as fast as I can get them,” Quick says.