22 months ago Pam and I were in TCI on our 2nd visit to the island of Provo. We were discussing our history with Pam’s new friend/real-estate agent, Heather, when she asked me what I did. I said that I was a farmer, and she remarked that one of her best friends had a hydroponic farm on the island of Nevis and his name was Don Mills. At the time I didn’t know how propitious that conversation was and how much of an influence Don would have on my decision to move towards hydroponics and tomatoes.
3 months after that conversation I was on a ferry with my longtime friend, Thad, heading across the strait between St. Kitts and Nevis. We had picked, by accident, Independence Day to arrive on the island, a day of a raucous good time had by the locals with music and pageantry. I had emailed Don that two guys with white hair would be at the wharf, and he replied that we would be picked up by an even older guy…… him.
First off, he has been running a hydroponic farm for close to 20 years in Nevis. Second, he is north of 80 years on this planet and yet you would never know it. Both his father and his wife are buried on Nevis and Don has no desire to leave there. His business partner is a citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis and owns the property where the operation is located. Don is a graduate of Duke, a great singer at karaoke on Thursday night, and fervent reader of the New York Times’ Sunday edition. At first blush he doesn’t strike one as a farmer, but upon further inspection, he is perfect for his occupation and for his location.
The hydroponic operations that I have visited seem to break down between two divergent systems based on the food that is produced. Don grows mainly lettuce (although he is branching into vertical towers and tomatoes this season). Unlike Provo, Nevis has ground water and a good municipal water system. Farmers are given subsidizes that entice them to use the system, hence no rainwater use. His method of hydroponic farming is called a closed Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). Essentially, all nutrient laced water is funneled down gutter like pipes that are established on a slope in order to collect and reuse it (after filtering). The lettuce grow in this continual flow of nutrients and water and are spaced out along the trough. His operation is very linear, almost like an assembly line. Since the purpose of this type of production is to harvest prior to the reproductive stage, the growing cycles are closer together. Don was in a continual planting and harvesting mode. The turnover in this type of production is tough. He was starting new plants every week to replace the ones coming off the next week; his troughs always in need of a thorough cleaning before returning to the production cycle. High turnover means high volume and daily delivery to numerous spots. Don was a master at it. Every day he was behind the wheel of his truck delivering his lettuce and collecting on his bills. Don had that magic touch with his customers, something he may have mastered when he was running a B&B farm in the Northeast many years ago. His purpose and subsequent enthusiasm keep him young. His is an interpersonal art form that, after all my years of self-imposed exile on my farm in Arkansas, I will never be adept at.
He turned me on to Dr. Howard Resh and to CropKing and to Killer Bees.
He started me down this road to alternative agriculture.
I am lucky enough to call him friend.