Water rushes through the pipes and fans whir inside the hydroponic growing system that Belleque Family Farms has set up inside a converted shipping container. Kyle Belleque crouches low to inspect the spinach plant on the bottom shelf of his garden.
“Makes me want to have a spinach sandwich,” Belleque said as he picked a deep green leaf and munches on it.
This Dillingham farm is making a concerted effort to provide fresh greens year-round. They grow everything from butterhead lettuce and chard to basil and mountain mint on floor to ceiling shelves that run the length of the container. Belleque points out a new product on a shelf across the narrow aisle.
“We’ve got our new experiment here,” Belleque said. “We’ve got bare root strawberry plants. We’re just going to start with a row, and then if they work we’ll plant more.”
Belleque Family Farms is something of an experiment itself. They are mastering hydroponic technology, testing different plant varieties, and now they’re trying out a new business model. In November, they began selling to grocery stores in Dillingham. But Belleque said that after a few months it became clear that model wasn’t sustainable for his produce.
“It’s not as fibrous, so the stalks break a little easier, and the leaves are a little thinner,” Belleque said. “It is ultra-fresh, but you sort of have to take care of it in certain ways to keep it fresh. I think that was somewhat of a challenge in the stores. They’re looking to get stuff in there and keep it out until it sells. And if it doesn’t sell for a while it becomes hard to maintain.”
When the grocery stores stopped buying their greens, they decided to try something new.
“I guess we started out with kind of the mindset that we would be replacing the produce in the stores,” Belleque explained. “That’s not how I look at it anymore. The way I look at it is we’re providing a whole new line of produce. So we’re developing that market for our new produce.”
Last week, Belleque Family Farms began selling shares of their harvest. $40 dollars a week buys a share of 10 units a week. An ounce of basil or a head of greens each count as a unit. Subscribers can visit the farm twice a week to pick out their greens.
“You know, if you want a head of lettuce, you point at the one you want,” Belleque said. “If you want some spinach, we’ll snip it off for you and bag it up. If you want some herbs, we’ll cut it right there. Essentially what we’re trying to offer people is year-round, fresh, custom grown produce.”
Initially, they are offering five subscriptions. So far, four people have signed on. Once the new system is established, Belleque anticipates that their growing capacity will allow them to sell 20 or 30 shares. They also want to continue providing fresh greens to the Dillingham City School District during the school year.
In a place where many people already eat off the land, collecting and preserving fish, game and berries, Belleque sees this hydroponic farm as one more opportunity to eat locally year round.