Lifestyles Reprinted from The Seminole Chronicle GREEN THUMBS: Bob and Laura Braun, above, have made a leap from techno-careers to living life on the farm. Tomato growers for the past five years, they’re learning the ropes of a new cottage industry that thrives on growing fresher, better-tasting tomatoes using high-tech growing techniques.
The life hydroponicA local tomato farmer forgoes soil to raise his vines differently By Isaac Babcock | February 22, 2007
Amid a roar of fans, the hum of bees and a trickle of a mystery liquid goo that makes things grow, Bob Braun seems lost in his own world, and he doesn't want to come back. “Just in this room we have enough to feed Geneva pretty well," he said, his gaze panning a 98-foot-long greenhouse covered wall to wall in tomato vines, stretching vertically into the misty air on a system of wires.
But the surreal indoor landscape stretching out beneath a sun-drenched translucent tarp in front of him didn't come easy. With a few battles to save a burgeoning hydroponic business behind him, he's hoping his crops won't die on the vine. After half a decade of fighting tornados, hurricanes, fire and an angry neighbor, Bob and his wife Laura are finding the plants are finally greener on their side of the farm. A sound engineer for 20 years of his life, Bob isn't quite sure how he made the leap from tuning the sound at Prince and Julio concerts to growing tomatoes in his own giant backyard, but he's happy with the result.
Stretching out along a dozen rows of plants 8 feet high, he sees the fruits of his labor every day. That's a welcome change from a life spent mostly on the road, he said. After a career living a touring lifestyle with irregular gigs, Bob found a way to leave it all in 2002. Serendipity came calling on a trip through Christmas in the late 1990s. "I met a couple of guys who were retired engineers at Kennedy who were [working with hydroponics]," Bob said. "I thought about it, and it's rocket science, only applied to growing plants. You research them, you monitor them, and you tell the plants exactly how you want them to grow." Holding a red tomato in his hand with a smile in his eye, Bob said he found his career match on the tomato farm. His decision to grow hydroponically was mostly motivated by the science behind it. Hydroponics, he said, takes plants out of the ground and injects some science to control and improve the growth process. It's all done naturally, with the plants growing out of special buckets that hold water and nutrients the Brauns choose to help them grow sweeter and faster than they would in the ground. Along the north wall of his family's 66-by-98-foot greenhouse, a computerized set of pumps and barrels drowns out some of the excitement in Bob's voice as he talks the science of growing a perfect tomato. "You need just the right water, and just the right nutrients, and these things will grow up to be more than a pound each," he said. Tracing arcs into the sky, more than a thousand plants grow up and out along the dozen rows in the greenhouse. The tomatoes pop out two to three per week on the vines, as the vines move toward the light, ripen, redden, and the process starts anew a week later.
It's a weird science you would expect to only work in a lab, but it'ssomething the Brauns have found a way to control. "We grow these thingsuntil right before we sell them," Laura said. "We know exactly what'sgoing into them all the time, so we know how they'll taste when they're done.Some of the food we sell at the farmer's market is picked the same day. It's asfresh as it gets." What customers get straight off the vine is an experience that may takethem back a few years, she said. "We've had customers tell us 'I haven't hada Michigan tomato in so long.' When we tell them it's hydroponic, they'reshocked. They think it tastes just like their favorite tomato, either fromMichigan, Ohio, wherever." That's a taste advantage Bob says hydroponic growers will always haveover traditional growers. Half of that comes from the time the plants spend onthe vine compared to how long they've been on the road. "Most food you get here comes from 1,500 to 2,000 miles away,"he said. "A tomato from a regular grower will still be green when theypick it, and it'll ripen while it's being shipped. Ours ripen on the vine untiljust before we sell them, so they have that sweetness that tastes just likefrom your grandma's tomato patch." "[Customers] find out they're hydroponic," Laura said, "andfrom then on they say hydroponic tomatoes are the best." That's kept the Brauns' small market of customers coming back for more.It's certainly not the price advantage. "We have to sell these at $3.50 apound to be able to make money," Bob said. "When a regular grower is selling for 99 cents a pound, it makes it hard to compete on price." Yet the Brauns' business is growing. They've expanded into lettuce, and cucumbers, to give customers more choice. "We've almost got a whole salad," Bob said. Still in their infancy in their fourth growing season, the Brauns have learned as they grow, and competition from locals has been almost nonexistent. "It's amazing," he said. "The people who should be our biggest competition are actually friends to us. They help us out,give us tips on how to grow. It's like we're not even competing; we're workingtoward the same goal." Now growing more than 34,000 pounds of tomatoes a year, the Brauns stillwork their day jobs, but their passion calls to them from the green plants intheir own backyard. Five years after they started, their dream may finally becoming true. Their business is growing, their son Zachary is now six years old,and they've found a reason to believe that the farming life might be for them. "People used to call me the audio man," Bob said. "NowI'm the tomato man. I like that. I like what we're doing here. If we could just sell enough of these things, I might never have to leave home again."