Tandy Crabtree and his wife Tracy in a Crabtree Farms greenhouse.
Photo courtesy of Crabtree Farms

Tandy Crabtree was a golf course superintendent for 20-plus years in central Missouri before the struggling economy prompted a career change in 2013. As it happened, his past and his present collided to make hydroponic growing the right move.

“My education is in biology and chemistry, and I followed that with working for Mississippi State University in their agriculture nutrition lab,” he says. After his time at MSU, he worked on golf courses for years, but when the industry dipped, the only opportunites required moving away from Missouri. Additionally, the Crabtree family wanted to eat natural foods grown with fewer pesticides and knew they were not only ones.

Along with his wife, Tracy, and his daughters, Rachel and Preston, Tandy set out to open an outfit in his current home of Montreal, Mo. to supply the local schools with fresh produce. Like his family, the schools in his area were trying to serve more of these healthy foods.

There was only one problem: Fresh produce isn’t always available year-round, and Crabtree knows the reason why.

“The reason that this country has the school year calendar that it does is that farms were raised with family labor,” he says. “In the time the farms were growing, the kids were at home tending them. If they weren’t tending, they were at school. Our calendar hasn’t changed that much. There’s not much growing when schools are in session.”

As a result, Tandy decided to open a year-round, controlled environment growing operation that would allow him to offer something no one else in the area was able to. Construction began in 2013 and the first crop was planted in the fall of 2013. Today, buttery Bibb lettuce is their main crop, but Crabtree Farms grows lettuces across the color spectrum.

“I knew the controlled environment was the way to go so I could work my way into year-round growth [and] get fresh produce into the school systems,” he says. “[As for lettuce], I felt I could get a premium product at a slightly lower price.”

Crabtree Farms uses Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic system known as NFT for short. The plants start in a nursery and are seeded in Rockwool cubes. After a two-week period, the plants are transferred to food-grade PVC grow channels where nutrient-rich water is fed over the roots in a recirculating system. The plants remain there for four weeks to mature. The end result is a product Tandy says his buyers love because they know where it comes from and because it’s clean.

By selling to schools, Tandy says that Crabtree Farms can offer something that other, bigger hydroponics outfits can’t. Because he is serving a specific community and isn’t filling large orders for supermarket chains, he can grow for the school’s needs and it make it easy for them to get fresh produce. This strategy has also allowed him to expand into neighborinng school districts like Springfield, Mo. He also is a member of a local food hub that sees local growers share equipment and operate out of a shared commercial kitchen.

“[The schools] have to decide, from one year to the next, what they are going to purchase,” he says. “Even if they want local produce, they don’t know what the market is going to be. You don’t know what prices are going to be or what’s exactly going to be available. With the controlled environment, it’s much easier to give them a set price. It has a much longer shelf life and there’s consistency.”

Two varieties of Crabtree Farms' lettuce.
Photo courtesy of Crabtree Farms

Plotting a future

Crabtree Farms also has received a grant from the Missouri Agricultural Small Business Development Authority’s Feasibility study to look at expanding their market to include chopped and bagged lettuce for smaller school systems that do not have the labor necessary to prepare the lettuce themselves. This grant allows them to apply for other working capital grants that Tandy hopes will allow him to his open a commercial kitchen in the future.

A Crabtree Farms greenhouse in Montreal, Mo.
Photo courtesy of Crabtree Farms

Even with his eyes on growth, Tandy and his family know where they came from. As they expand and look the future of their business, they try to stay true to what got them to this point. At the start, he started small to, as he says it, "get his feet wet" and avoid taking on too much overhead. He and his wife put their first house up for sale to fund the operation and built a new home. Despite his background in horticulture, Tandy took his time to get to this point.

“You gain experience by making mistakes. I think the mistakes are behind me and I’ve got good, consistent crops now,” Tandy says. “Lenders know that there’s a market within the state now. That’s only going to more of an advantage when I start to make my expansions.”

Janelle Patterson contributed to this article.