For 15 days after Hurricane Dorian tore through the Bahamas, Hamilton “Hydro-Ham” Horne was amid the wreckage, assisting with cleanup and recovery. Working through a friend’s charitable organization, he was in Hopetown knee-deep in the heartbreak and strife of local families as they labored to rebuild.
Supplies and food sources were scarce, and meals were of ten eaten on the fly. It was a rare and treasured moment when people could gather, seat themselves and have a hot meal.
“It wasn’t just the act of, you know, eating,” Horne said. “It was seeing what a warm meal and good conversation could do for one’s spirit. Food is important. It brings us together.”
Food is important, and so is the quality of food. Horne noted that often, the available food was somewhat inedible and that sometimes there was a bit of waste.
Having experienced these temporary moments of food scarcity sparked an imaginative flame in Horne; he began to question how he could meaningfully bridge the gap between a food’s source and the dinner plate.
Bridging that gap is the motivation behind his King Tide Farms.
Horne, a native of Sullivan’s Island and a graduate of Bishop England High School and “Ole Miss,” is also a third-generation farmer. Though he has spent years in the real estate business, he is effectively going back to his roots.
This time his roots aren’t in vast acres of tilled soil, planted tobacco, corn and soybeans but in a 40-square-foot, refrigerated shipping container nestled just behind Firefly Distillery’s Park Circle operation in North Charleston.
The castoff container has found new life as Horne’s “hydroponic smart farm.” Utilizing 320 square feet, his container yields the equivalent of two acres of farmland of a variety of specialized greens. The benefits of this method include reduced, or negated, need for pesticides and efficient use of space that would otherwise be unsuitable for safely growing food.
Horne’s enthusiasm toward this venture is more than a ride on a feel-good bandwagon. He is truly, earnestly, excited and passionate about all the benefits “growing up instead of out” has to offer.
King Tide Farms crosses off many ecofriendly checklist items, including:
• Use of just five gallons of fresh water to hydrate 15,000 plants, with the remainder coming from recycled moisture from his HVAC and dehumidifier systems;
• Protection in the enclosed, controlled environment, allowing for a reduction of disease in plants;
• A growing season that remains unaffected by the weather and the large yield from such a small parcel of real estate.
There are no high-interest loan rates on land, Horne added, and no hours-long commute to work on the old farm. It’s all right here in Charleston’s backyard.
King Tide Farms set off a host of positive, local ripple effects. Hyperlocalism is the effect that fuels Horne’s passion.
“Did you know that the USDA allows a grower to claim “locally grown,” despite being over 400 miles away? I mean, there are a lot of states within a 400-mile radius. You think you’re buying local, when really, you’re buying produce that was farmed and harvested in Tennessee,” Horne shared.
“Most of the nutrition in your produce is found in the moisture content. We lose roughly 60% of the nutritional value in transit just on water weight alone,” Horne added.
So if we’re trucking 90% of our nation’s freshly picked lettuce in from Arizona or California, which we are, these leafy green commodities come to our dinner plate nutritionally depleted. However, if your produce is coming from a neighborhood hydroponic smart farm, such as King Tide, it’s getting to your table days before it suffers this depletion.
Right now, chefs at Charleston’s local restaurants make up almost all of Horne’s clientele, and his business model is saving them money and the ache of wasted produce that goes bad before it can be used. It can also help the consumer avoid sticker shock when perusing the menu.
“The price of a restaurant salad has to go up, you know, because the wholesale price of 24 heads of lettuce went up to $94 thanks to fuel surcharges, right?” Horne asked.
King Tide Farms eschews a fuel surcharge since the transport distances are often just a few miles.
“They get charged more because of transit or these supply chain costs. My thoughts on that are, well, we could break that chain. Forge a new one,” he said.
That’s just what he is doing. Planting, growing, harvesting and delivering his produce is a single-handed endeavor right now.
Horne’s 18 hours a day, seven days a week growing cycle allows him to provide just-harvested produce to chefs in the immediate area, and 100% of those nutrient-packed greens are useable.
“You don’t have a chef throwing away half their delivery because it’s gone bad,” he said.
This quick growing cycle enables Horne, and thereby Charleston’s local chefs, to experiment with a variety of nearly customizable greens as well. Horne gets to grow “cooler” greens he likes to call a “chef’s cut.”
The rich leaves are a smaller, bite-sized, more manageable leaf. They’re beautiful as well, which is an important consideration as, Horne earnestly said “. . . because we eat with our eyes, too.”
King Tide’s produce comes in a variety of sizes, flavors and colors. Wasabi arugula, citrus, Thai and opal basil and a mind-boggling array of lettuces are all on King Tide’s menu. King Tide grows anti-inflammatory microgreens – which have three to four times the nutritional value of adult plants – radish, borage and King Tide’s “young uns” onions. Horne’s creativity and the efficiency of his farm provide his clients with endless options.
Horne’s driven and rebellious spirit enjoys the idea that hyperlocal logistics might put a ding in the monopoly that certain regions hold over a majority of our nation’s produce.
“Why should the whole country suffer a lettuce shortage because Texas had a bad frost?” he laughed.
Getting serious for a moment, Horne freely admitted that hydroponic smart farming can’t replace traditional farming, nor does he think it should.
“First of all, we’re all growing vegetables. My system doesn’t make for problem-free farming. All I’ve done is create a new set of problems. This can never replace traditional agriculture, but it can complement it. I mean, my personal target market is a 50-person restaurant. I can’t do more than that. I can’t feed the number of people till farmers feed.”
“We need each other,” he continued. “I’m a big fan of farmers. As a matter of fact, I think they need to benefit a little more from Charleston’s tourism. After all – no farmers, no restaurants.”
He is eager to cooperate with traditional farmers who might lose seedlings to inclement weather. “When there was a frost that recently hit, I had 16 trays of 288 seedlings growing at all times in the nursery. Man, let me know if I can get seedlings to you. I’m not getting bitten by this frost, and I’ll dig in to help a till farmer. We’re all in this together.”
Horne is open to mentoring or being a resource for others who would like to create their own farm.
“I love being transparent about what we can and can’t do through hydroponic farming, and I’m happy to share all of my defeats and successes during the learning process,” he said.
To learn more, visit kingtidefarmschs.com.
By Amy Gesell