Living the Hydroponic Dream at Wojnar Family Farm
“Is this the best stem, honey?” asks Audrey Galli as she sits on a five-gallon bucket in front of a blooming tomato plant. Her husband, Mike Wojnar, smiles and and says, “Sure is, darling. Go ahead and attach it.”
It is a bright sunny day at the Wojnar Family Farm—situated on leased acreage at the site of the old Hazard Farm on Post Road in Saunderstown. New greenhouses sit adjacent to the weathered shingled barns. The banter between husband and wife is friendly and relaxed. Audrey is a full-time physical therapist unwinding on her day off, and farmer Mike is “living the dream,” in his words. Together, they are training tomato vines to follow strings that lead to overhead bars running the length of the greenhouse.
A graduate of “Essex Aggie,” as the Essex Agricultural and Technical High School in Danvers, Massachusetts, is called, Mike Wojnar has been surrounded by farming throughout his life. As a child, he grew up on an apple orchard that was destroyed to make way for the Methuen Mall. He kept his hand in farming during summers by visiting Grey, Maine, where an uncle had a vegetable farm.
After five years in the US Coast Guard, stationed at Point Judith, Mike fell in love with Rhode Island. He went on to have a career in the local marine industry that spanned three decades. All along, he was “dreaming and scheming” while keeping up on the latest hydroponic farming techniques.
“I have been trying to wriggle free for the last five years,” joked Mike as he talked about finally making the career change that best suits him.
THERE’S A METHOD TO IT
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water, and without soil. In place of soil, an inert medium is used to contain the roots and transfer all that is required to grow strong healthy plants. When done properly, the technique is highly efficient, requiring up to 75% less water than traditional methods.
For example, the Wojnars produce 800 heads of lettuce a month—year-round. The process requires approximately 200 gallons of water. By comparison, traditional growing methods might use 200 gallons a day, or 6,000 gallons for the same crop.
The balancing act of maintaining the correct mix of moisture, nutrients, temperature and light can be challenging.
“We regularly send leaf samples out to be tested,” said Mike. “If there is too much of something or not enough of another, we fix it,” he added.
The threats of pests or plant disease are always a factor. Proper “greenhouse hygiene” goes a long way towards protecting against them. If something does happen, Mike has methods. “If needed, we buy beneficial bugs to eat the bad bugs—we never use pesticides,” he said.
The mainstay crops at Wojnar Family Farm are lettuce, cucumbers, beans and tomatoes. “Aphids can be a problem from time to time,” said Mike. “For that we release parasitic wasps—they are harmless, and keep us from having to use any kind of sprays.”
The “lettuce house” occupies 100 square feet and uses a small amount of propane heat to keep the elevated growing beds warm during the coldest times of winter. Right next door is the 3,200-square-foot house that produces tomatoes, cucumbers and beans.
Over the summer, the Wojnars built a “high tunnel” with traditional in-ground crops. Spinach, carrots and winter greens are grown and harvested directly out of the ground. After each harvest, the soil is tilled and fertilized with organic compost made on site. According to Mike, business is booming. Local restaurants such as The Ocean House in Watch Hill, Celestial Café in Exeter and Mariner Grill in Narragansett buy much of what the farm produces.
“At times the restaurants could buy everything but then we wouldn’t have anything for our regular customers,” said Mike. Other times, there can be too much of one thing. As with everything to do with farming, striking the right balance is essential.
“It is a good problem to have,” said son Josh when discussing the topic of selling out of certain items. Both Josh and his brother Adam help at the farm when their busy schedules allow.
“We like to keep it local,” said chef/owner Branden Read of the Celestial Café in Exeter. “Our customers appreciate the quality and freshness that we get from the Wojnar Family Farm, and we enjoy knowing that we have a consistent local supplier for fresh organic produce.”
The relationship between chef and farmer is expanding. When Mike knows that he will have a lot of one product, he informs a couple of local chefs. “We made a huge batch of pickled green beans last month,” said Branden. When Mike knew that he would have a large crop of beans, he contacted Branden, who devised a quick plan to accommodate the bumper crop. Customers at the Celestial Café will see a splash of green on their plates this winter—compliments of the Wojnar bean crop.
Jeff Cooke of the Mariner Grille in Narragansett is a regular customer. He enjoys the proximity of the farm. “Living in Wickford and working in Narragansett means that I pass the farm every day,” said Jeff. Chef Jacob Burnham from the Mariner Grille grew up on a farm in Saunderstown. He and Mike collaborate on plantings and harvests. “It influences my menu planning,” said the chef. “We are doing lots of things with the broccoli rabe this month—it is just beautiful!” he exclaimed.
Over the course of the winter, Mike and Audrey will be adding an additional four greenhouses, mainly for lettuce production. They’ll be testing new crops and growing by request but the ultimate goal is to open a true roadside farm stand.
“I have a shed in mind,” said Mike, but of course time and money are factors. Progress might be slow, but it is carefully considered. In the meantime, feel free to stop by when in the neighborhood. There may not yet be an official stand but it is still possible to buy fresh vegetables during business hours on most days of the week. Just ring the bell.
You can find Wojnar Family Farm on Facebook, at summertime farmers’ markets in Richmond and Goddard State Park and the Peacedale Indoor Farmers’ Market this winter.