Autumn is the season of abundance, with fresh local produce available in backyards and farmers markets. But before we know it, winter arrives, and most of our “fresh” produce actually spends many days being shipped thousands of miles to our area. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get fresh, local produce all year long? Thanks to Andrew Serio, owner of Serio Farms, that wish is now a reality. He grows a variety of fresh produce through hydroponics, which means without soil. All of the plants’ nutrients are delivered via water.
Andrew recalls how he first became interested in hydroponics. He says, “I was a kid, about 10 or 11 years old,… and we went down to Texas, and we went to a grocery store.” The unique aspect of that grocery store, Andrew recalls, is that above the groceries and shoppers, live hydroponic plants were growing. He was fascinated with the system, and never forgot that experience.
In his adult life, Andrew became a truck driver, but a few years ago he got the idea to try hydroponics. He explains, “It started as basically a fun thing to do. I was driving a semi truck. I was working 70 to 80 hours a week. And I was always interested in hydroponics, and so I went and built my first small greenhouse. And I started with 48 tomato plants and about 300 lettuce plants.” Since that was much more than Andrew needed for his own household, he looked for a way to sell his produce. “I started with Four Daughters Restaurant over by Spring Valley, and the first time I brought those tomatoes in, they said, ‘I’ve never tasted a tomato that tastes like this. These are the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted.’” From there, word quickly spread, and more restaurants were asking for Andrew’s produce. Before long, Andrew had expanded into a second, larger greenhouse.
When asked what makes his tomatoes so popular, Andrew replies that he insists on picking them only when red, whereas most store-bought tomatoes are picked green, so they can ripen during shipping. He also states, “Mine have a very good, old-fashioned flavor, and they don’t have that hard, solid core.” His tomatoes are now served at a number of area restaurants, including Forager, Blue Duck, Four Daughters, and the Rochester Country Club. He also sells his produce at the Lanesboro Corner Market, Rochester Farmers Market, and Peoples Food Co-op in Rochester.
Andrew recalls when he first brought his tomatoes to the Rochester Farmers Market, saying that several people “reluctantly” bought his tomatoes, saying they didn’t expect much from hydroponic tomatoes. But, he adds, “The next week, I had a line at my table, and within an hour I had sold out of 110 pounds of tomatoes.” Currently, Andrew grows tomatoes, lettuce, basil, mint, radishes, watercress.
Serio Farms is located at 18299 Lonesome Road, just north of Greenleafton. Regarding his current operation, Andrew states, “I have two other people who help me. One is my dad; he does deliveries. And the other person is my wife. She’ll help with the lettuce, and then she helps with a lot of the bookkeeping.”
Since there is no soil used, the base water used in hydroponics is of crucial importance. Andrew tells of his well, which is roughly 640 feet deep, stating, “So by that, I’m getting some of the purest water that there is.” He then adds fertilizer and minerals as needed, and adjusts the pH level of the water. It then runs slowly through a PVC pipe system of his own design, to nourish all of the plants in his greenhouses.
Obviously, with any year-round greenhouse in the Midwest, heating and cooling are also major concerns. Andrew explained that he uses “swamp coolers” to cool in the summer, and runs furnaces to heat during the colder months. His second greenhouse was built with a heated floor system, which has handled the worst of Minnesota winters, as he adds, “When it was 38 below zero this last winter, with the wind chill I was at 66 below zero outside, and it was struggling, but one morning it was down to 48 degrees in here.”
Andrew showed the “flood and drain” system that he has set up for his mint, watercress and basil. In this system, the plants are simply rooted in river rock, and the fertilized water in pumped in for 12 hours, followed by 12 hours of no water, so that the plants don’t rot. He harvests around 10 pounds of watercress per week. He also grows some hot peppers, adding that he’s had a request to grow the world’s hottest variety of peppers, the Carolina Reaper. He plans to start them soon, saying, “They can grow 10 years, so once I get them planted, I’ll just leave them grow.”
But tomatoes are definitely the main crop at Serio Farms, and he says, “I can average, in the summertime, anywhere between two and three pounds per plant, per week. In the wintertime, I’m anywhere between three-quarters and a full pound per plant, per week. Andrew shares that his tomato plants are grown in a horizontal direction at first, and then vertical for the last few feet. An individual tomato plant may grow to 30 feet in length, so it would be unrealistic to grow them completely vertically. He adds that because his plants are in a controlled indoor environment, there are very few insects, but tomatoes do not need insects to pollinate, as they essentially self-pollinate when the leaves move in the breeze caused by his many fans. Some very small insects, such as aphids, and some molds, do get into the greenhouse, so Andrew is constantly on the lookout for these problems, and works to keep them to a minimum.
As Andrew’s business has continued growing, it changed from a “for fun” hobby into a full-time job, and he quit truck driving in April of this year. Now he has plans to expand further into another larger greenhouse, but has not yet decided on the best financing option. He says he’s been approached by people interested in becoming investors, but isn’t sure if he wants to do that, or just take out loans. He says after his planned expansion, “I’ll probably be employing two, maybe three people. It’s good for the community; it’s good for everybody.”