FAIRBANKS - To visit Bill Johnson’s controlled environment is to briefly leave winter behind and get a taste of the tropics. On a recent snowy, windy, zero-degree day, a stop by the indoor farm offered respite from the frigid north. Inside it was bright, warm and the humidity was a comfortable 70 percent. “This is my little Eden,” Johnson said.
The endeavor is one Johnson started in November. He had experimented with growing basil at home for a couple of years and was so successful that he rented space in a business plaza on South Cushman Street and added piping, lighting and tubes to create an indoor farm. Using 100 percent hydroponic methods, Johnson grows beautiful lettuce, spinach, wheatgrass and microgreens, which he sells to Homegrown Market.
As a full-time truck driver delivering freight to the Pogo Mine, Johnson cleverly arranged the system so nearly everything is automatic, with the plants getting 18 hours of daylight and the temperature dropping about 10 degrees at night. Before beginning this enterprise, Johnson launched a self-study of controlled environment research to learn how to do things right.
He particularly likes the work done at Cornell University and quotes that institution’s publications often.
Being well prepared has helped Johnson to calculate exactly how much he can produce. “I’ve hit it right on the head,” he said. “I found I have a knack for it, even if I am scratching my head about it,” Growing up in Wrangell, Johnson, “a proud Haida,” helped his family fish and grow food. “Our people are pretty self-sustaining,” he said. He served in the U.S.
Army in the early 1980s, then started driving trucks in northern Alaska with his father. He eventually drove trucks in the Lower 48, delivering fresh-cut flowers, which put him in contact with some of the country’s largest greenhouse growers. When he saw a system similar to what he has now, he could not get it out of his mind. “I knew I just had to have one,” he said. Johnson is constantly fine-tuning everything.
When algae became a problem, he adjusted the hydrogen levels in the nutrients and solved the issue. He doesn’t trust city water, so he puts it through a reverse osmosis process to purify it, then removes the minerals and adds his own. “I start with a clean slate,” he said.
Every action is logged.
“Observation is the biggest thing,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to notice changes and respond to them.”
While his only customer to date is Homegrown Market, Johnson has high hopes that restaurants will tap into his crops. “Maybe some will step up to the plate and use the greens as garnish,” he said. “Parsley is so outdated.”
He touts the advantages of local produce. “The nutritional value is the big thing that gets me,” he said. And he firmly believes microgreens are good for everyone. Because his father passed away from cancer, Johnson is driven to help other people heal through nutrition if possible.
His family has been supportive of his venture, but Johnson said his wife Christine has gotten a little tired of lettuce. His son Summit, 15, is a big help with the plants and doesn’t complain too much about the daily does of salad.
Asked about his goals, Johnson doesn’t bat an eye when he says, “I really hope to save the planet.” But then he smiles and says, “I’d like to be able to provide restaurants with the freshest lettuce. At some restaurants, you might as well eat the carpet as the salad.”
He admits that finding alternative sources of energy is a challenge. “I would like to stay green,” he said. “Sustainable agriculture is the way of the future.”
Johnson is happy with his project. “Where else can you harvest lettuce at 40 below?” he asked.
“I’m ecstatic. This is neat stuff to play with and figure out. I have so much to be grateful for.”
Locking up his facility, Johnson points to an ornament hanging near the door. His wife gave him the bauble, which holds the words, “Dare to dream; trust your crazy ideas.”
Johnson shakes his head and smiles.
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GET IN TOUCH