The agriculture industry has a new and growing vocabulary these days. Terms such as aquaponics and hydroponics are helping define the future of the industry, and Tennessee’s innovative producers are leading the charge. In addition, Tennessee companies are seizing opportunities to reach national and global markets with innovative products.
In Greenback, Jeff and Trish Dean have learned to commercialize what for many years had only been an in-home hobby. Their company, Eco-Rich Farms, uses aquaponics to produce and sell lettuce and herbs. Their 11,000-square-foot greenhouse houses both plants and 800-gallon tanks filled with tilapia.
“The fish waste provides a food source for the plants, and the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish live in,” Jeff Dean says of this symbiotic relationship. “When people walk into the greenhouse, they’re fascinated to see how it works. There are no chemicals. You just set it up and let the bacteria do its work, and you get this beautiful, leafy vegetable.”
Aquaponics is a close cousin of hydroponics, a method of growing plants in water without soil. GrowAgra in Buchanan uses hydroponic grow chambers to produce wheat that is processed into organic wheatgrass juice, which the company’s president, Jim Scarbrough, says is popular because of its rich nutritional content.
“We have several products we can grow, but we’re only growing wheat now because we’ve discovered wheat has more vitamins and minerals than just about anything else on the market,” Scarbrough says. “The chlorophylls and enzymes are all there.”
GrowAgra’s grow chambers average 10 feet wide, 10 feet tall and 48 feet long. The chambers have six levels of plants growing in them, and each of the levels has its own water source. The plants are fertilized with saltwater because Scarbrough says, “The ocean has all the nutrients our plants need, and it makes our plants very happy.”
Before starting GrowAgra, Scarbrough worked as an industrial machinist. He used that experience to build the first grow chamber, which is designed to be mobile.
“You can pull them up to a site and plug them in like a camper, add water and you’ve got a farm. No dirt or tractors are needed,” he says.
Growing The Tennessee Brand
Scarbrough says the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program enabled the company to purchase equipment and helped GrowAgra get its products into Whole Foods Market.
“We are now ready to produce about 200 to 400 cases a week of product. That may not sound like much, but that is a big, big number,” he says.
Eco-Rich Farms sells to Butler & Bailey Market in Knoxville as well as to four of the Food City grocery stores in East Tennessee. Dean says the company also supplies several restaurants and will soon begin supplying an assisted living facility. The company grows between 1,500 and 2,000 plants per week at full production, and Dean hopes to double that number in the near future, as well as add sorghum, alfalfa and barley to the mix.
Spicing It Up
In Middle Tennessee, the Franklin-based Doug Jeffords Company, (DJC) is adding a little spice to agriculture production by creating customized spice blends for some of Nashville’s most popular restaurants, including Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant, Whiskey Kitchen and Red Pony. “We’re kind of a little-known secret unless you are a chef and in the food industry,” says J. McKinley Thomason, president of the Doug Jeffords Company.
Founded in 1961, the company was first known for its sausage seasonings. McKinley’s father, John Mack Thomason, worked for the company and ultimately purchased it in the mid-1980s. He expanded the client base by working with chefs and restaurants to create custom spice blends.
When John Mack passed in 2005, McKinley led DJC to develop a retail line as an ode to him. The high-quality J.M. Thomason line includes Chili Lime, Hot Chicken and Porterhouse Steak blends.
The latest success is the signing of an agreement to create custom spice blends in partnership with Duck Commander Family Foods. Doug Jeffords’ newly released collection includes Willie’s Bayou Blackening, Uncle Si’s Cajun Gun Powder and Kay’s Lemon Pepper.