St. Paris hydroponic farm expands to supply Whole Foods, restaurants

Ethan Snyder was selling vegetables at farmer’s markets throughout the Columbus area when his dad offered a suggestion that led to the creation of a growing business in St. Paris.

Old Souls Farms, a hydroponic produce farm in Champaign County, has been in business for two years now. But the business is preparing for an expansion this fall after steadily adding clients at restaurants and grocery stores throughout the Columbus area, including Whole Foods. The big change, Snyder said, came when his dad suggested switching from farming outside to growing hydroponic lettuce in a quarter-acre greenhouse.

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“My dad came to me and said, ‘I think I have a better idea,’” Snyder said.

For the past two years, Snyder and high school friend Vic Kaczkowski have been studying hydroponic farming techniques to provide lettuce, basil and other herbs to their clients year-round. They went to high school in Delaware County, but built the business in Champaign County in part due to its proximity to other markets like Cincinnati and Dayton. The biggest challenge, Snyder said, was breaking old habits about how to grow produce.

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“There’s no weeding at all, but it’s a total mindset shift,” Snyder said of learning to grow produce in a greenhouse.

The techniques they’ve learned over the past two years have allowed them to grow eight varieties of lettuce, along with other products that are now shipped to customers four days a week.

Growing the products indoors allows the business to produce a consistent product quickly and efficiently. But while nature provides some leeway, Kaczkowski said any mistake in the growing process indoors is quickly noticeable and they’re the only ones who can fix it.

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“It’s a mixed blessing,” Kaczkowski said. “We have total control but at the same time we have to know what we’re doing.”

They bought the basic equipment for the business from a supplier, but Snyder and Kaczkowski, a former engineer, had to develop their own system for delivering the water and nutrients to the growing produce.

Along with a handful of part-time employees, they also plant, harvest, pack and ship the produce every week. Kaczkowski’s younger brother is their sales representative.

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One benefit of having a smaller operation is it allows customers to make special orders. So if a restaurant client wanted a steady supply of a particular variety of basil, for example, Snyder and Kaczkowski can begin delivering it on a regular basis with as little as two weeks notice, depending on the product.

For grocery stores in the region, it also means a longer shelf life for the produce because it’s grown in Ohio as opposed to California or other states.

“We harvest 80 percent of the greenhouse every two weeks,” Snyder said.

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The produce is already carried at Whole Foods stores in Columbus, but will soon be available at the chain’s locations in the Dayton and Cincinnati areas, Snyder said.

Now, the size of the business is about to double. The pair said they are planning to start excavating the site next week and will expand the greenhouse to a half-acre. The additional produce they’ll grow could be ready as early as February or March next year.

While they want to continue to expand, Kaczkowski said it will likely be a slow, steady process.

“Our goal is to get as much of our produce onto as many plates in Ohio as possible,” Snyder said.

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