Hydroponic business at Ledgeview Farms continues to grow

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Larry Opsteen estimates a harvest of around 40 pounds per tomato plant in the family's hydroponic grow operation.

MALONE - While the rest of northeast Wisconsin has been blanketed with snow for what has seemed like forever this year, Lenny Opsteen and his family have been working inside a little oasis tucked away on a rural road just a mile or two from the shore of Lake Winnebago in northeast Fond du Lac County.

Inside the hydroponic growing operation, towering tomato plants laden with ripening tomatoes and climbing cucumber vines fill the 12,000-square foot greenhouse at Ledgeview Farms. The family-run operation is one of six stops on the second annual Meet Your Local Farmer: A Farm-to-Table Tour set for this Saturday, April 28.

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The successful hydroponic grow operation is in its ninth season and Opsteen says that  most of the inventory is spoken for long before the plants begin bearing fruit.

"We hit a couple of bumps at first, thinking we could sell right to a warehouse but our volume wasn't quite big enough," he said. "We put a sign out front and business has taken off like wildfire. There's a real demand and yearning for this 'buy local' product that we're thinking of expanding."

He estimates that each plant produces around 40 lbs. of fruit.

"We're probably growing around 60 tons of tomatoes each year," he said with a smile.

A new beginning

The seed for a career change was planted around 10 years ago after Opsteen visited a hydroponic grow operation. Fascinated by what he saw, Opsteen brought the idea back to his wife, Deborah, and daughter, Heather Guelig, who was majoring in Food Science at the time.

"I'm very conservative so I was a bit apprehensive. It took off so quickly that I quit my job last year to do this full-time," Deborah Opsteen said. "Heather changed her major to horticulture and is here everyday taking care of the plants."

The couple's other children also help out with the operation performing maintenance, picking and delivering product, as well as marketing.

Ledgeview Farms currently grows giant beefsteak and Roma tomatoes along with four varieties of cherry tomatoes—reds, sun golds, yellow grape and black cherry. Also popular among customers are the long, seedless English cucumbers that are often mistaken for zucchini, Opsteen said.

English cucumbers hang from on high inside the greenhouse at Ledgeview Farms hydroponic growing operation in Fond du Lac County.

"The skins are so thin that you don't need to peel them," he said.

From a seed

Seeds for the plants are sown around Christmas time and by mid-March are ready to be harvested.

Inside the climate controlled structure set at 70 degrees, Guelig stands on an elevated platform pruning sucker shoots off the vines and adjusting the pulley system supporting the plants. Because the tomato vines are indeterminate (with no fixed height), once they reach 10 feet in height, Guelig trains them to run horizontally along the support cables so the fruit is easily accessible.

"Some of these vines will be 30 feet long by the end of the growing season," Deborah Opsteen says.

Lenny and Deborah Opsteen's daughter, Heather Guelig changed her major from Food Science to Horticulture in order to lend her expertise to the family business.

Because its an enclosed structure, Guelig makes sure all of the plants receive proper nutrition and has also enlisted the help of a small colony of bumble bees to help pollinate the plants.

To market

Deborah winds her way up and down the rows, picking the vine-ripened fruit from the plants and putting them in tubs destined for several locations including three farmers markets, Farm to School programs at seven schools, local grocery stores, area restaurants, The Free Market store and Lawrence University as well as folks stopping by the greenhouse.

"Sometimes it's hard to compete with tomatoes being shipped in from Mexico and Canada, but a lot of those are picked before they're ready," Deborah Opsteen pointed out. "It's important to let the plant grow and develop and ripen on the vine so you get the best flavor."

Leader stems of this tomato plant draw water and nutrients from the box inside the greenhouse at Ledgeview Farms hydroponic growing operation in Fond du Lac County.

Guelig, who brings her preschool children along to the greenhouse, says she enjoys working with the plants each day. 

"While it's much easier growing inside than outside, there are other aspects that you have to be on top of," she said. "It's simple but yet a precise growing process and we're learning something new every year. In the end its rewarding to see all of the product that we're producing."