Seeding a future in hydroponic farming

15 Oct 23 | Lifestyle

A husband and wife duo gave up everything to move from Washington State to South Dakota, where their new hydroponic greenhouse is taking root in the local community.

Estelle (40) and Preston (50) Sheldon made a life-altering decision to move to South Dakota in 2020, packing up their family, three dwarf goats, a dog and a sheep, along with everything they owned, in search of freedom and adventure. Their ultimate aim was to establish Sheldon Family Farms, a commercial hydroponic greenhouse located on their beautiful 40-acre farm in Box Elder. “It was a tough decision to pack up and start the home-building process all over again,” says Estelle.

At the time, Preston had a high-paying job and was recently retired from the military, and Estelle had many friends who were a big part of her life. It was the debate around climate change, increased carbon emissions, a shortage of fresh water, and how these all affect the world’s food supply that inspired the couple to launch Sheldon Family Farms.

“We offer a simple solution, on a small scale, by growing our produce in a controlled environment, using a commercial hydroponic system that uses 95% less water than traditional farming practices. “Our produce is never subjected to pesticides and our seeds are not genetically modified. In addition, hydroponics does not use soil, which requires harmful fertilisers or crop rotation techniques,” says Preston.

As the farm only grows produce for its local communities, it also has less carbon emissions. “We don’t transport our produce thousands of miles like farms in California and Mexico do. We can produce 1 100 heads of lettuce per week, or just over 57 000 pounds per year, at full capacity, in only 1 440 square feet.” Estelle and Preston seeded their first crops this February, with the first six to eight months of their business plan focusing on fine-tuning their growing methods and learning what produce can be grown together. “We are ahead of our business plan in terms of production and produce quality,” says Preston.

While they had some setbacks, after taking advice from different nutrient suppliers with conflicting growing strategies, they teamed up with Black Hills Cultivation in Rapid City and now use their nutrient products exclusively.

“Our crops are amazing,” says Preston. Gladius Romaine lettuce, one of their best-selling products, ‘is absolutely beautiful and the darkest, tastiest green Romaine you will ever eat.’ They also grow butter and Bibb lettuce, red and green incised and oakleaf lettuce, collard greens, iceberg lettuce, sage and kale.

Pretoria roots

Born and raised in Pretoria, Estelle describes herself as a social and warm-hearted woman with an empathetic core. She is passionate about her family, faith and core beliefs, which were ‘born in South Africa and evolved in America’.

“Our children, Savanna (11) and Adonis (3), are my everything and I love being a mother,” says Estelle, who actively tries to connect with other South African families in South Dakota and enjoys passing on her childhood traditions to her family and friends.

Preston is the polar opposite of Estelle when it comes to social interactions and her outgoing personality. Estelle says he’s guarded and on high alert in public settings, and protective of his family.

“He watches Adonis like a hawk!” Having spent most of his childhood in Seattle, living in youth shelters, being homeless and in transitional youth programmes, Preston appreciates every opportunity he has been given. He is proud of being able to navigate the obstacles and barriers thrown at him, to become a successful husband, father, soldier and career professional.

“I would not be the husband and father I am today without experiencing the harsh childhood I had,” says Preston. He joined the Army National Guard in 1998, transferred to the Army Reserves in 2004 and was deployed to Iraq in 2006 as a staff sergeant.

“I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s military footsteps, so I accepted a direct commission in 2008 and was honoured to have my grandfather pin my second lieutenant bar onto my uniform in the shadow of the legendary Iron Mike statue at Fort Lewis.”

He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and Iraq in 2016, and medically retired as a captain in 2019. Before moving to South Dakota, he was a senior project manager at Boeing and a manager at Amazon. Estelle moved from SA to the US in March 2002, when her lifelong best friend joined an au pair programme in the US. “I wanted an adventure and wasn’t going to let her leave me behind in SA!”

When she arrived in New York for her training, she was assigned to a military family in DuPont in Washington State. “It was freezing! I was in a diverse group of teenage girls and none of us had winter coats or clothing to handle the brutal winter weather. We would all huddle up together to try and stay warm,” she says.

Comparing the US to SA, Estelle says the fast and processed foods took her by surprise and she misses SA food the most. She can talk for hours about how much she misses boerewors and how her next business venture, with her local SA friend Lizé-Marie, is to start a SA food truck for tourists who visit the Black Hills every summer. “Preston made me a biltong dryer for Christmas a couple of years ago and it is fantastic! I make large batches and freeze them. When we meet local SA people, I give them some as a reminder of home. My cousin Estie and her husband Lomar moved from SA and are living in Denver. Estie makes the most amazing rusks!”

Farming for the future

Preston says hydroponics is the future of farming. “It is sustainable, environmentally friendly, and easily adaptable to alternative energy, while still harnessing the sun’s power. In April, we had 60mph winds, four feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures, yet our greenhouse was nice and warm, and our plants thrived.”

Their greenhouse is high-tech, with a computer system that controls the shading system, which activates when it is too hot or cold. Fans auto-activate and the cooling wall opens and closes based on optimal growing conditions; sensors monitor nutrient levels, water temperature and PH; pumps add more nutrients and control the PH; and there’s an efficient radiant heat system to warm water during the harsh winter.

the downside to farming indoors is the initial investment required to become operational, Preston says the cost is ‘worth every penny’. “The return on investment will be financially and spiritually beneficial, as we know we offer a superior product that’s often harvested, packed and distributed within 24 hours.” The farm’s largest wholesale customer is Feeding South Dakota, which provides food to families in need in the area. It also has retail customers, such as Staple & Spice, which runs community-supported agriculture programmes. The Black Hills Farmers Market is its second largest retail customer, where they sell their produce every Saturday.

The dream is to build Sheldon Family Farms into the largest hydroponic producer in South Dakota. “It’s a lofty goal, but my dream is to hand the reins over to my son if it’s something he wants to pursue when he is old enough. Our daughter has not yet shown an interest in being a farmer, but we are holding out hope that she will want to be involved,” says Preston. The couple has hired a part-time worker and will start focusing on expanding sales to local restaurants, direct customers, farmers’ markets and wholesalers.

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