Twin Pine Farm: Greenhouse Growing

"Our whole family is kind of rogue," says Gary Hogle of Twin Pine Farm, "we do our own thing." Gary's family has harnessed their sense of innovation and adventure to develop and operate a hydroponic farm in Scandia, Minnesota.

The Hogle family has a diverse background and extraordinary way of looking ahead. Gary holds a degree in Business Administration from Moorhead State University, and has 18 years experience in the horticulture business. Gary's father Don retired from 3M after 29 years, and holds a PHD in Physical-Organic Chemistry. His mother Marilyn is also a 3M retiree. Gary's sister Jan earned her PhD in Instructional Technology after finishing undergrad in Biology.

Image"This is a great meld between all our backgrounds," explains Gary. "In this business you have to be able to be everything; the chemist, biologist, physicist, electrician...
Its awfully expensive to hire people to do things for you." And so the Hogles researched and planned for ten years, and learned and borrowed technologies from other industries, and took out loans and made sacrifices. Now in their sixth year of business, they have a diverse and stable market base, are planning expansions, and will be "in the black" in a real way for the first time.

Growing and Expanding

Gary estimates that over half of their business has found Twin Pines Farm through their website that Jan developed, which has also allowed them to be involved in many far reaching conversations. "We've had email from an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that I can't even find on a map!" The rest has evolved through word of mouth and exploring various markets. One key to their success has been maintaining control over the quality of their products once it leaves the farm. Twin Pine will only provide to stores and chef-owned and operated restaurants if they are allowed to deliver two or three times a week, to ensure prime flavor and freshness of their produce. "We live and die by our reputation," says Gary. "We have to adamant about our conditions. Often times I go and eat at a restaurant before I decide if we will sell to them. It limits our market to be so selective, but also avoid a lot of problems that way."

The fact that they can provide fresh and local produce year round is a huge asset to their marketability. Developing personal relationships has also been important, and helped to establish much of their repeat business. "People take note when you remember their name from month to month, or what kind of tomatoes they like," says Gary. They try to make the drive worth while for a lot of their regulars too by putting them on a "tomato call list" so they are alerted when the tomatoes they are patiently waiting for are perfectly ripe. The tomatoes at Twin Pine are allowed to ripen on the vine, which Gary says makes all the difference. "Fifty percent of the flavor of tomatoes comes in the last day of ripening," he explains, which is why they do not ship their produce."We are planning to expand by building tiers," says Gary. Low growing crops, such as the various greens and herbs, do not need much vertical room to grow, so they plan to start "stacking" in their three greenhouses. Gary thinks they will be able to grow at three different levels in each green house, maximizing their space and increasing the amount of produce.

ImageWhat IS Hydroponic Farming?

Although it can not be certified organic in Minnesota, hydroponic farming is a pure and natural way to farm, because the plants are raised in a highly controlled environment. The complete nutrient solution that is fed to the plants is calibrated to compliment the chemistry of the water. This solution is composed of minerals that are refined to remove the naturally occurring impurities. (Organic farmers must not refine their minerals in Minnesota, which is why Twin Pines cannot be certified.)

In addition, there is no chance of cross-pollination with neighboring GMO's because the plants are in a controlled environment, and no chance that the soil or manure fertilizer will contaminate the plants. The plants are grown in pots or bags filled with perlite, an inert volcanic glass familiar to many gardeners. Perlite serves as an excellent storage for the nutrient solution. The plants take up the nutrients they need from the perlite, and any excess nutrient remains stored in the perlite for use with the next crop.

Twin Pine also eliminates the use of pesticides through the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM is a method that introduces predatory insects that help to control their pesky cousins but do not harm the plants. Lacewings and ladybeetles are examples of "good bugs" that are commonly used to manage problem pests.

The amount of produce that is produced in relation to the acreage that they occupy is astounding, and perhaps even more promising is the fact that greenhouse growing can be done in very close proximity to an urban area. The Twin Pine website says, "Our methods embrace ideals of hydroponic and organic philosophies to produce safe, contaminant-free produce of the highest quality." The Hogles have certainly established themselves as leaders in this promising industry in Minnesota. With so much success and innovation already under their belts, it will be exciting to see where they go from here!

Renewing the Countryside