Romaine lettuce is Thoele’s main crop, but tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers round it off
By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
Barry Thoele has lived in Morrison or Todd County for several decades and has always been an entrepreneur of sorts. He once was a fishing guide in the Lincoln Lakes Area and seined his own minnows, selling to local bait shops and for use in his guiding business. He then built holding ponds to raise his own redtail chubs, a live bait of choice among fishermen.
When he married Bonnie Kobliska, he moved his businesses to 22 acres in the Staples area.
“It was in 1992 when I began thinking about hydroponics,” said Thoele. “The idea came from raising the minnows and figuring out what to do with the green water that arose in the ponds.”
Naming his business Barry’s Cherries for the tomatoes he also grows, Thoele’s original idea was to use hydroponic green houses to make use of the nutrients added to the water by the fish. Without doing something with the water, the nutrients would build up and the water at times become sour with too much nitrogen and phosphorous. His minnows could die.
At the Staples site, Thoele added minnow ponds one by one and now has about a dozen. He also built raceways, or artificial rivers for spawning purposes.
“In 2002, I purchased a used green house (25-feet by 54-feet) and had some success using the minnow pond water. It’s been a learning experience,” he said. That greenhouse is now used to grow cucumbers.
Today, he pumps the groundwater from the ponds to a reservoir. That water is sterilized and used in his greenhouses.
Besides reusing the minnow water, his other motive for growing hydroponically was that he just couldn’t accept the produce he was purchasing from the local stores.
“I knew it wasn’t the best we could get,” he said.
With the proceeds from his first greenhouse, Thoele built another, 30-feet by 72 feet, set up to grow hydroponically, but not all year. But the Minnesota growing season was extended. He now grows the cherry tomatoes in it.
The third greenhouse was a 12.5-foot by 25-foot solar high tunnel set up with hydroponics. This way Thoele was able to grow year around. Any future greenhouses will be built similarly.
His fourth tunnel, 20-feet by 48-feet, was built with help from an Equp grant which required Thoele to grow in the earth. That tunnel now grows melons and cauliflower and when the grant expires, he will convert it to hydroponics.
“This greenhouse has a heating system,” he said. “During the day, fans blow warm air to an insulated pole barn. At night, the process is reversed and warm air is blown back to the greenhouse.”
The fifth high tunnel is 30-feet by 96-feet and produces year around. It’s where he grows his romaine.
Thoele said there, the system he set up works until temperatures reach five degrees above zero or colder at night. He then has to use supplemental heating.
“During the day, I never have to use another heat source. The sun does all the work, even when it’s cloudy,” he said.
On the north side of the high tunnel is a vertical wall with a thermo-mass solar storage medium. It absorbs heat during the day and radiates that heat to the high tunnel at night.
“In Minnesota, there is no sun coming from the north, so why have a greenhouse open in that direction?” Thoele questioned. “This design heats in the winter and cools in the summer.”
Barry’s Cherries has about 6,200 square feet of growing space.
Thoele’s future high tunnels will use as much solar and geothermal heat as possible.
Barry’s Cherries’ main crop is romaine lettuce, which he said has the highest nutritional value than most any other lettuce.
“I experimented with lots of vegetables and lettuces, and this remains my specialty,” he said. “It lends itself well to hydroponic growing and there is no comparison to the romaine purchased in the store.”
Thoele’s growing practices cuts off about half the growing season of romaine. The heads of lettuce are ready in 36 days during the summer. Plus, he said there are no worries about E. coli with his good growing standards and no worries of bacteria from soil which may damage root systems.
In the winter, the romaine takes about 48 days from seed to harvest.
He said another advantage to growing with hydroponics is he doesn’t have to rotate his crops.
Thoele starts his romaine seeds between two pieces of standard brown paper towels, soaking them in non-chlorinated water until the tap root appears.
The seeds are then transferred into damp rooting cubes, 84 to a tray, one seed per cube.
They then go into the nursery/high tunnel and grow for about 10 days, getting watered four times a day.
“From there, the plants are transferred to the hydroponics system and I watch them grow,” he said.
Once a day, the water in the system is checked for its nutrients. Adjustments are made if necessary.
“When I started this, my bait business was always going to be my primary source of income with the hydroponic romaine as secondary,” said Thoele. “But with the levels of live bait decreasing dramatically in the wild, my priorities have changed.”
Thoele said he sees hydroponics as jobs, both locally and in urban areas.
“My dream is to see hydroponic farming every 20 square miles in rural areas and every square mile in urban areas,” he said. “People can make a decent living plus serve the community by doing this. It’s good, healthy food, it’s local food and it creates jobs.”
Currently, Thoele has two part-time employees. He figures he will hire one more with each building he erects.
“If I have 16 buildings in the next four years, I should have eight full-time employees,” he said.
In 2009, when he started selling in earnest, he sold at the Staples Farmers Market and local stores. He was growing about 60 heads of romaine a week. Today, Thoele grows and sells about 350-450 heads of romaine a week. The produce goes to the Staples Hospital, the Brainerd school system and to various restaurants in the area.
He works with Arlene Jones and Sprout Minnesota from The Farm on St. Mathias.
“Jones has done a lot to help me, and others, market our produce,” said Thoele.
Through word of mouth, people are now coming to him for his produce, especially his lettuce.
Barry’s Cherries, located at 48301 County Road 21 in Staples, is open to the public Thursdays and Fridays from 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. or by appointment. Thoele can be reached by calling (218) 296-0446. He is also on Facebook under the name Barry Thoele.