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Growing hydroponic vegetables inside poultry houses

Chris Torres Vicki Sump and Kevin Doyle of Dunmore Heath Farm in Cordova, Md.
HYDROPONIC PARTNERS: Vicki Sump and Kevin Doyle have partnered to grow hydroponic basil and lettuce in one of the Sump’s three idle poultry houses in Cordova, Md.
The Sumps have replaced their broiler chickens with hydroponic basil and lettuce.

In June 2018, the last broilers were put on a tractor trailer and shipped out from Dunmore Heath Farm in Cordova, Md.

For Vicki and Mark Sump, who have been raising broilers on the farm since the late ’80s, it was the end of a tough road. For two years they were raising broiler chickens for Perdue Farms but had their number of flocks reduced to two a year. They once grew five flocks of chickens a year and had the security of knowing they would get a steady paycheck for their work. But their security blanket was gone.

“I told my husband in the fall … we have to do something with these poultry houses. We can’t just have them sitting empty,” Vicki says. “We worked hard to get them paid for and they’re up-to-date poultry houses. We had to do something with them.”

A chance meeting with a representative from a salmon growing company that was buying an old poultry facility less than a mile from their home opened a new possibility: hydroponics.

Today, the sweet smell of basil and lettuce emanates from a portion of one of their 42-feet-by-550-feet houses. The Sumps have partnered with Envista Farms, a company that has installed hydroponic farms in warehouses in Pennsylvania, on the project. Kevin Doyle, founder of Envista Farms, says the goal is to expand hydroponics inside more poultry houses on the Eastern Shore, but perfecting the system at Dunmore Heath is key.

Getting the house ready

The Sumps met Doyle last fall. Doyle has converted old warehouses in Pennsylvania into hydroponic growing facilities, but he was unsure at first whether a poultry house would be suitable.

"My fear with growing in a poultry house, how do you maintain the temperatures? Everyone told me not to worry about it because they already warm them for the birds,” he says.

Chris TorresVicki Sump at work in the greenhouse

WORK IN PROGRESS: Ever since the first seeds were placed in January, Vicki says she’s been tinkering with the system to get the plants to grow faster.

But before the seeds could be placed and the tables built, the house, which was used to grow birds for 20 years, had to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.

The Sumps and a few of their employees power-washed the house to get any remnants of chicken litter off the ceiling and the walls. They then power-washed a second time with bleach to kill the pathogens. Doyle says the process is like cleaning a house infected with avian influenza.

The Sumps invested in additional upgrades, including new LED lights above the tables, polycarbonate side panels in place of the side curtains and new electrical systems.

Doyle provided the seeds for growing the first crop.

“We started building the tables Christmas week and right now they are in full running order,” she says.

Sump says she is somewhat familiar with hydroponics. In 2004, Sump started growing annual plants for Bell Nursery in a greenhouse built adjacent to one of the poultry houses. She’s familiar with the process of growing hydroponically but has never grown plants that way before.

“Well, first of all, it's a lot different growing in water than it is in soil," she says.

First seeds planted

The eight wooden grow tables were placed inside the house with LED lights hanging over them and tanks underneath each table.

The first crops were planted in late January. Basil seeds were started in a foam medium in one of the tables and took about 14 days to emerge. Once growing, the seeds were transplanted into another grow table with water feeding the roots with the nutrients needed to grow.

It was a nerve-wracking time for Doyle, who still wasn’t convinced the houses would stay warm enough to grow a crop. The big test was in early February when temperatures got downright frigid.

“The temperature outside was 6 degrees [F] and the house was a comfortable 74 degrees. Everything was growing like clockwork,” he says.

Chris TorresVicki Sump growing hydroponic vegetables in idle greenhouse

TAKING A RISK: Vicki says she’s willing to take the risk of growing hydroponic vegetables to get something going in the idle houses.

Once growing, a hydroponic crop can take anywhere from four to five weeks to reach maturity, so the total process is between six and eight weeks.

The whole process has been trial and error. Sump says they needed more electricity to support the LED lighting, so their local electric supplier updated their service from 240 volts to 480 volts. That was completed two weeks ago.

They also had to balance the pH on the floor to keep ammonia levels in check. Doyle says they spread acetic acid on the floor to balance the pH levels before covering it with gravel.

Perfecting the system

Sump says it took two months to figure things out, from when to start the seed to how much nutrients to feed and when to harvest.

“There is hydroponic basil and lettuce, green leaf and red leaf lettuce, and Romaine lettuce,” she says. “But we’re going to see which one grows the fastest. The object of the game is to shorten your weeks so you get your product out sooner.

“The lettuce is a little slower crop in there as of right now. I’m trying to get it faster.”

Doyle says he’s already contracted with local grocery store chains, including ShopRite and Safeway, to get Envista-branded hydroponic lettuce in stores. A recent pathogen test done by University of Delaware showed no pathogens, he says.    

Doyle says he envisions selling basil and lettuce in local farmers markets, too.

“In any business it's about volume, so if you can grow something faster and you can get it more dense, then the chance of positive revenue is greater," he says.

Big potential but big risk

Dunmore Heath’s success will be crucial to getting more growers to sign on. Doyle says another poultry house hydroponic project in Caroline County is nearing completion. Two more projects in Delaware are also nearing construction, with another 10 in varying stages of predevelopment, he says.

Gordon Johnson, Extension specialist of fruits and vegetables with the University of Delaware, says other attempts have been made in the past to repurpose idle poultry houses, including aquaculture, greenhouses and mushrooms.

“The main issue is that a poultry house is designed for growing poultry, not these other uses. With that said, the indoor lighted production has the best chance that I have seen. Economics will depend on markets, energy costs and market stability,” Johnson says.

And hydroponics is not cheap.

Chris TorresOutdoor view of polycarbonate side panels on poultry house

NECESSARY UPGRADES: Along with enhanced LED lighting and a thorough cleaning, polycarbonate side panels have replaced the traditional side curtains of the poultry house.

“Growers will need to remove some fill soil from the floor and brink in clean fill and then cover with geotextile, ideally clean; sanitize and cover walls and ceilings with plastic; and clean and sanitize all vents and fans being used. These are significant costs,” he says. “However, the real major costs are for the hydroponic growing systems (tank, nutrient film or buckets with drip) and then the lights which are the main cost. Lighting alone will cost over $100,000 depending on the size of the house. For a 500-foot-by-40-foot house, the cost would be over $200,000.”

Doyle says the potential for these types of hydroponic growing operations in poultry houses is real.

“If you think of it, lettuce come out of California 10 months of the year and, according to the USDA, the average person eats 1 dozen head of lettuce a year,” he says. “So, within five hours of the Eastern Shore of Maryland or the Eastern Shore of Delaware, we have about 60% of the nation's population. So, if we can grow at full production, we can produce 20,000 dozen heads of lettuce a year per poultry house.

“We're not trying to change the market, we're just trying to help farmers and supplement the market.”

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